WHAT ARE THE MAJOR CHALLENGES FACING THE DISTRICT?

Traffic Congestion from New Development

This is the biggest issue affecting the quality of service offered by the District.  From 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM and from 2:30 PM to 7:30 PM, emergency response routes are so clogged that it is now nearly impossible for first responders to reach victims and events in the seven-minute limit that is critical to survival.  Even after help has arrived on scene, it is often necessary to wait for ambulances to arrive (our responders are not allowed by state law to transport victims to hospitals).  The ambulances, too, are delayed in their trips to the hospitals.


While specialized equipment and teams for rare occurrences, such as hazardous materials spills, are available regionally, congestion now delays their arrival to such an extent that they may have to be duplicated.  In the event of a release of hazardous materials on U.S. 101 or in a manufacturing company, the response must now come from San Mateo.  At 4:30 PM on a weekday, that could easily take over one hour.  It may be necessary soon for the District to duplicate these resources.


There are solutions, but they are very difficult to accomplish politically and financially.  They include, for example, limits on development, without additional roadway infrastructure, and the dedication of existing roadways for emergency use only, especially during commute hours.  There are futuristic solutions, too, such as the delivery of rescue equipment (e.g., automated external defibrillators) by drone and even helicopter response and transportation.  At the very least, these solutions—and the means to pay for them—must be considered by our constituent agencies when approving massive commercial and residential developments.

Taller and More Intense Development

The urbanization of the Midpeninsula region has changed the nature of both the equipment and training necessary for timely and effective response.  One-story residences did not require 100-foot ladder trucks, but 10-story commercial and residential buildings do.  Even then, it is difficult and unacceptably time consuming to evacuate hundreds of people from a building via a ladder.


There are solutions to this, but they are also costly and often politically unpopular.  The starting point is stronger building codes requiring sprinkler systems and protected means of egress, as well as $1.5 million pieces of equipment.  


There are solutions, but they are very difficult to accomplish politically and financially.  They include, for example, limits on development, without additional roadway infrastructure, and the dedication of existing roadways for emergency use only, especially during commute hours.  There are futuristic solutions, too, such as the delivery of rescue equipment (e.g., automated external defibrillators) by drone and even helicopter response and transportation.  At the very least, these solutions—and the means to pay for them—must be considered by our constituent agencies when approving massive commercial and residential developments.

Insufficient Water and Water Pressure

The lack of availability of water is a major problem.  Six or seven water agencies serve the District and some of their infrastructure is over 100 years old.  It is difficult to get enough water pressure to take it up 10 stories and to address more than one or two structures simultaneously.


As always, there are solutions, but they are not under the control of the Fire District.  That is one of the reasons that the Board has made it a priority to improve our outreach to water companies and to do a better job of making them, residents, and employers aware of the problems.  Water availability also needs to be a major consideration for the constituent agencies approving new development.

Compensation and Pension Costs

When times are good and tax revenues are high, as they are now, it is relatively easy to afford the high salaries and pensions of employees.  Unfortunately, these obligations remain fixed at high levels, even when there is a leveling off or downturn in tax revenues.  That is also the time that investment yields decline and pension earnings become insufficient to pay current obligations, requiring CalPERS to require higher contributions from its members, resulting in a double hit—less revenue and higher expenses.


There are two things that can and should be done: 


• First, we can do better planning so that the impacts of economic downturns can be understood.  The San Mateo County Grand Jury recently chided the District for not doing this strategic planning, which could be used as background for compensation and benefit decisions before new employee contracts are approved.


• Second, we can go to a lower pension tier for our safety employees.  We are currently at the highest level; the Governor Brown’s pension reform legislation created two levels below where we are, but the District has not seriously considered a change.



(Action photos courtesy of Menlo Park Fire)