News


Traffic hampered firefighters responding to East Palo Alto house fire

Problem is also delaying emergency response for Palo Alto Fire Department

Firefighters were hampered from reaching an East Palo Alto home on Monday evening when a fire broke out because of heavy traffic. And the problem of delayed response times is becoming an increasing concern for departments across the area, including in Palo Alto, local fire chiefs said.

While firefighters quickly knocked down Monday's blaze, the majority of fire trucks arrived on scene eight minutes behind the first engine due to the traffic congestion. The first unit arrived by 6:11 p.m., but others could not arrive until 6:19 p.m., Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said on Tuesday.

"It makes me nervous to hear calls like that, because stuff can go wrong," he said.

The delays are concerning for local chiefs, including Palo Alto Fire Chief Eric Nickel. In Palo Alto, responders are delayed by up to 30 seconds each time they go out during morning and evening commutes, and 30 percent of the runs take place during those hours, he said.

Schapelhouman said that good news for the economy is bad news for public safety.

"In the last nine months our guys have noticed a huge uptick in the amount of traffic on calls we're responding to. It's delaying our response and with a fire, you want to get there as soon as possible," he said.

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District strives to be on scene within eight minutes, but Schapelhouman said that has become increasingly difficult in recent months due to roadway conditions.

Nickel agreed.

"We experience this a lot. I get very nervous as a fire chief," he said, adding that he has ridden along with crews and watched what happens. The department began tracking the problem in the late part of 2014. Nickel has talked to the City Council about his concerns, he said.

The problem is exacerbated by understaffing during workdays, he said.

"Palo Alto is a tale of two cities. During the day, the population is 150,000 to 175,000 people, but the department is built to handle 85,000 -- the 65,000 in Palo Alto and 20,000 at Stanford. We're the right size for 85,000. To meet the daytime population, we would need 10 to 12 stations. We have six," he said.

The department is looking at how to accommodate that population increase; first-responders not only fight fires, but they take care of traffic accidents, injuries and emergency medical conditions.

Nickel said the department is looking at staffing more resources during the busy times of the day by positioning personnel doing inspections and training in strategic parts of the city to respond quickly in an emergency. The department is also considering smaller, rapid-response trucks that are pick-up sized to get in and assess the situation he said.

The department has an automatic-aid agreement with Mountain View's fire department, which sends the nearest available engines to the scene, regardless of the city. That arrangement has been equitable, he said, with each department having responded to about 25 calls across city borders.

"We've noticed an improvement in responses because of that. It's working really well," he said.

Palo Alto is trying to work out a similar agreement with Menlo Park Fire, he said. Currently, the two departments have a mutual-aid agreement, by which they help each other when needed, but it is not automatic, he said.

Comments

5 people like this
Posted by Traffic
a resident of Duveneck School
on Jan 14, 2015 at 8:33 am

Again, another negative cost of growing beyond what a small town can handle.


4 people like this
Posted by Gridlock: It's Official
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 14, 2015 at 8:52 am

Traffic's right. Another negative and obvious cost of unprecedented growth. Ambulances can't get by either when traffic has no way to move to let them through either.

Maybe we should convert fire engines and ambulances to bicycles to make the anti-car lobbyists happy?

If gridlock's up 65% in the 2009-2013 period, what's it like now? It certainly hasn't gotten better.


6 people like this
Posted by imt3495
a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2015 at 10:35 am

As a commuter I can certainly agree with traffic in EPA. Since officials have made changes and posting signs that do not allow right turns from 3pm to 8pm in various neighborhoods University Ave. is super-super crowded.
We used to be able to take various ways throughout town to keep traffic distributed but not anymore. I also think that folks who do not pullover for emergency vehicles should get ticketed and fined. Just have the emergency folks take pictures of their license plates and turn them in.


5 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 14, 2015 at 10:51 am

This article and at least some of the responses to it should be required reading for those entrusted with planning and transportation, including Jaime Rodriguez. One day last winter I was in a store on University Avenue when an ambulance was trying to make its way to someone. It was about 6pm and I found myself saying a silent prayer for the person waiting for emergency response b/c every minute matters. There are some very practical reasons why we need to take a hard look at the impact of density as well as the configuration of our streets. If we don't, we are essentially asking for trouble.


6 people like this
Posted by EPAMom
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 14, 2015 at 10:58 am

As an East Palo Alto resident, I can say we don't want commute traffic "redistributed" on our residential streets. Too bad there isn't a better way to and from the bridge, but there isn't. Cutting through people's neighborhoods isn't the answer.


4 people like this
Posted by Safety First
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2015 at 11:42 am

This article deserves to be split into two, and the issue of Palo Alto and our traffic problems affecting safety needs some attention and focus by the news media, since it has been so utterly neglected by the City Council in the previous administration.

"And the problem of delayed response times is becoming an increasing concern for departments across the area, including in Palo Alto, local fire chiefs said."

Residents complaining/warning of this, and how the structure of the City subordinates safety to development interests (when safety should come FIRST), were ignored at best, and castigated for concerns about safety at worst.

Our town has changed. We should immediately make a separate SAFETY element in the Comp Plan, as the state mandates anyway. it no longer serves to roll it up as an afterthought in the natural environment element. We have a (non-mandated) business element for goodness sake. Post haste, let's start the safety conversation, put safety above development, plan for safety, and ensure we put it first.

Before a tragedy or tragedies forces us to, when it's too late.


5 people like this
Posted by Just pull over!
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 14, 2015 at 11:42 am

Traffic is certainly a problem. However, a bigger problem (and one that makes me so upset) is that many people just don't pull out of the way of emergency vehicles. Sometimes the gridlock is terrible, but we can all do our part and stop and scoot over even just a bit. Time after time, I pull over and watch others blaze by me, honking even, and continue racing or inching along (depending on traffic) right in front of emergency vehicles. I don't know if people don't know/remember the rules, are in from other areas without our rules, or are just plain entitled and think the rules don't apply to them because they are more important. Please! Think about how you'd want others to drive if it was your loved one or home in need of help, or for those most selfish, if it was you yourself. And, yes, tickets should be given to those who intentionally impede emergency vehicles.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2015 at 12:01 pm

Can't speak about this particular area, but in some areas of Palo Alto there are so many parked cars, construction vehicles, etc. that pulling over out of the way is nigh on impossible. Even bikes still continue on regardless when there is an emergency vehicle and pulling into the bike lane could cause another problem.

Traffic gridlock in Palo Alto will cost lives because of this.


2 people like this
Posted by Gridlock: It's Official
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 14, 2015 at 1:48 pm

Often the bicyclists wearing headphones are the worst.

I've seen them block ambulances on El Camino as they blithely cross in the front of the ambulances and block them!

But with such bad gridlock there's absolutely no place to pull over, something all the traffic planning folks keep denying as they keep eliminating lanes and replacing convenient diagonal parking with parallel parking RIGHT at intersections like Cal Ave and El Camino.

Either their goal is to irritate us with traffic backups or they believe cars can levitate.


4 people like this
Posted by lms
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 14, 2015 at 2:17 pm

@ imt3495: Too bad the commuters have to worry about making illegal turns coming through our neighborhoods. Just thank Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park and San Mateo County for the congestion by their active opposition to the approved accesses to the Dumbarton Bridge, by bullying and politicking against the "approved" Environmental Impact Report that in fact included a Southern Access via Embarcadero Road.

Also thank them for one lane exit and egress to their communities, particularly University Avenue that is a particular hazard to bicyclist and pedestrians - and emergency vehicle response - crossing over the freeway. East Palo Alto was an unincorporated town at that time and, therefore, credit has been earned by San Mateo County for its obvious neglect.

The EIR is still available if you want to see it and we'd be pleased to lend it to the Palo Alto Weekly for review. More importantly, we would most appreciate more lighted crosswalks and signs for pedestrians, particularly school children, disabled and elderly. A couple of "ignorant, dumb and stupid" members of the Concerned Citizens of East Palo Alto.


1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 14, 2015 at 3:36 pm

If we revive the Dumbarton rail bridge, would that reduce cross-bay auto traffic enough to send all the University Avenue commuters over to the Willow Road access?


2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 14, 2015 at 4:00 pm

@ Ims: sorry, but you should blame Menlo Park for not following through on the Willow Expressway. It would have connected to Sand Hill Road and would have provided easy travel between 280, 101 and Dumbarton. Far superior to what you suggested.


Like this comment
Posted by Not-A-Big-Problem-At-The-Moment
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2015 at 4:20 pm

> "Palo Alto is a tale of two cities. During the day, the population is 150,000 to
> 175,000 people, but the department is built to handle 85,000 -- the 65,000 in
> Palo Alto and 20,000 at Stanford. We're the right size for 85,000. To meet the
> daytime population, we would need 10 to 12 stations. We have six," he said.

What does this have to do with response time? Even if there were more stations, making the starting point for a response team a little closer, with only a 30 second delay currently being noted as a result of traffic, the delays could be just as long, or only a few seconds shorter--which is not going to make much difference for a fire underway, or even starting.

Sorry--but Chief Nichol is clearly just trying to get his budget increased--promising virtually nothing in return.



1 person likes this
Posted by lms
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 14, 2015 at 6:15 pm

@ Crescent Park: Don't be sorry to dispute what I've written. I've got no problem with blaming and naming Menlo Park, at all.

Why wasn't that option a dependency to funding Dumbarton Bridge access by Palo Alto and Atherton? Embarcadero Road was eliminated in funding the project, all to the detriment of East Palo Alto. Seems to me the politicians really didn't and don't care about East Palo Alto, a community that was virtually powerless before incorporation. And, just which community takes the licking from the politicking?


2 people like this
Posted by Ron
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 14, 2015 at 6:58 pm

I live on University Ave and I need to say that the traffic is way too much compared to how it was back then. There has to be a solution to how to fix this problem. It makes this street very unsafe for all kids and adults. Living here I've witnessed tons of traffic collisions as well as pedestrians being struck by vehicles. It's all sorts of people trying to get to the bridge so most of the times there driving is reckless and unsafe. There's so many times that I have seen the ambulance and fire trucks speed down the opposite lanes, which I think is very unsafe for in coming cars that can't see or move out the way on time. I say that they should no longer let people go through university ave to get to the bridge. They should go down willow road like it always has been. Willow road is a street with three lanes and hardly any homes near by. I can go on for hours about all the bad things that come with the traffic but for what? East palo alto does not care about its traffic problems. They prefer to get paid off then to not allow this traffic to occur. I guess there too busy and more focused on reducing crime here. I just hope that no kid gets killed walking down this street. It's not safe.


2 people like this
Posted by growing impacts
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 15, 2015 at 8:24 am

This is a measurable impact everybody can understand of out of control development and the top priority of the Council and staff over the past 15 years to subsidize and promote office development oblivious to impacts on quality of life, safety,neighborhoods,aesthetic values,character of the City, environment- all the long-term values and things that really matter. The negative impacts keep growing from what is already in the pipeline. That is the reality. But we need to stand behind and encourage the new Council majority which brings a new ethic to our local government as they try to deal with the shocking degradation and mess we are in. Current chaos
in the financial markets may also undermine the push by local developers to cash in as this new Council tries to refocus the City on long-term values
and serving the public interest.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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