Two Palo Alto fire stations don’t have engine crews

An engine crew from Palo Alto Fire Station 3 at 799 Embarcadero Road is helping make up for the gaps in coverage in south Palo Alto. Photo from city website.

Daily Post Staff Writer

The city of Palo Alto has two fire stations without a fire engine, leaving south Palo Alto with only one engine that could be busy at any time.

The city doesn’t have a fire engine at Mitchell Park or the College Terrace station, Chief Geo Blackshire told council’s Finance Committee on Tuesday.

So when the engine at the Barron Park station is responding to an incident, the closest engine to south Palo Alto is at Stanford or at Rinconada Park — more than 2.5 miles away from the city’s border with Mountain View. 

The College Terrace station is also the closest full-time station to Interstate 280 and the foothills.

“Sounds pretty important,” Councilwoman Vicki Veenker said on Tuesday.

Blackshire said his goal is to get an engine staffed in College Terrace by July 1.

“We have the actual apparatus. We need the people,” he said.

Blackshire’s initial proposal is to require firefighters to work overtime so the College Terrace station could go from two firefighters to three firefighters.

Three is the minimum number of firefighters to staff an engine, and it’s also ideal for medical calls, like CPR: The first person does breathing, a second person handles chest compressions and a third person administers an IV, Blackshire said.

Mandating overtime is the cheapest option for bringing the engine back, but it’s also the option that firefighters least prefer, Blackshire said. 

Capt. Joe Penko, president of the firefighters union, urged the Finance Committee not to mandate overtime.

“When we do that we’re saying, ‘Yes we agree that we need this resource, but pensions are expensive — so let’s just put the extra work on the back of the firefighters,’” Penko said.

Pay records show that Penko received $391,023 in total pay and benefits in 2022. The city gave firefighters a 20% raise in a contract signed last year. 

The union wants the city to add full-time positions at the College Terrace station, but that will cost $60,000 more per year for their pensions and benefits, Blackshire said. It’s also a permanent cost that will go up as firefighters get raises.

Attitude toward overtime changed

Blackshire, who started with the city in 1997, said the approach to overtime has changed with a new generation of firefighters. 

“When I came on, overtime was a thing that everyone wanted, Blackshire said. “If someone felt like they were skipped, it was a big deal … Now we’ve been trying to find ways to get rid of the overtime.”

The lack of engines means that Palo Alto and Mountain View work together less often, even though they share a dispatch system, Blackshire said.

The departments used to drop the boundaries in the system, and whoever was closest would respond.

But Mountain View Chief Juan Diaz has “pretty much separated” from Palo Alto, except for freeway responses and confirmed structure fires, Blackshire said.

The station at Mitchell Park has been without a fire engine since August 2021. Firefighters are planning to move to a modular station at the Cubberley Community Center for two years during a $15.3 million rebuild at Mitchell Park.

The temporary station will maintain only one ambulance. Blackshire said his goal is to open the new station with a fire truck, planned for December 2025. 

Blackshire is also planning for more housing development along San Antonio Road to make the Mitchell Park station even more important.

For example, the Oshman Family JCC used to have a fire engine parked 1.1 miles away.

The closest engine is now 1.7 miles away in the Barron Park neighborhood, next to Juana Briones Park.

Ambulance service

The city is also having to rely on ambulances from Santa Clara County AMR, which are concentrated in San Jose and can take more than 27 minutes to arrive.

The county ambulance was called in 280 times last year, Blackshire said.

The county tries to respond in 27 minutes or less, while Palo Alto’s goal is to respond to medical calls in eight minutes or less.

The city is meeting this goal about 75% of the time, the budget shows.

City Manager Ed Shikada said city managers across Santa Clara County are discussing the impact of a “crisis in ambulance services, and the lack of timelessness of that service” by Santa Clara County AMR.

Blackshire said he is considering a longer term initiative to hire civilians to be paramedics, rather than having firefighters do the job.

That would free up firefighters and provide a training ground in Palo Alto, but it would require more negotiations with the union, Blackshire said.

Palo Alto is the busiest fire department in Santa Clara County per capita, Blackshire said.

Firefighters responded to around 9,300 calls last year — the first time the city has exceeded 9,000 calls, Blackshire said. He wasn’t sure why Palo Alto is reaching historic highs.

“It can be attributed to people living longer, the type of health care people are getting, Stanford population, the economy coming back. We haven’t really been able to narrow it down,” Blackshire said.