Answering Community Questions About the City’s Public Safety Response When Calls for Emergency Medical Service May Also Involve Other Safety Issues
From Ed Shikada, Palo Alto City Manager
The City’s Fire Department and Police Department handle complex emergencies every day, serving the community with professionalism, pride and dedication. A recent media report about a June 911 call raised questions about how the City handles calls for emergency medical assistance. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the complexities about emergency public safety response and outline the steps we are taking to continually improve our services.
Safety is Our Number One Priority
Public safety services are among the most vital services provided by any community. Our Police Department responds to more than 60,000 calls for service annually. Our Fire Department responds to more than 8,900 calls for service annually. Emergency service calls are rarely straightforward and societal factors make these calls subject to continuous change. This provides us with the opportunity to continue to review operational policies and practices, learn from them and adapt our public safety response to continue to meet the needs of the community.
Training is a key element of how our police officers and fire personnel respond. In fact, 100% of the City’s police officers are trained in crisis intervention to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. This enables fire personnel to focus their attention on the emergency medical needs of patients. The policy improvements and training described here reinforce public safety as our highest priority, help ensure that individuals needing medical care are treated as quickly as possible and demonstrate our attention to continual improvement.
Response to Medical Calls and Calls Involving Potential Safety Issues
Local public safety dispatchers have an extremely difficult job. Beginning with split second decisions at the start of a 911 call, dispatchers must assess details of a situation and share them with Police and Fire first responders based solely on the information provided by the caller.
Responding to a medical call typically involves Fire personnel being dispatched. With this type of call, a fire engine and an emergency medical ambulance will often respond together or close to the same time. If a call involves dispatching personnel to a scene where someone may be having a behavioral or psychological issue, or where the situation details are not clear, public safety response can vary. Generally, Police will respond first. The responding police officer will assess the safety of the situation and then request Fire assistance, including emergency medical services, as needed.
If a call potentially involves both medical and safety issues, the dispatcher may ask the Fire crew to wait at a distance away while the responding police officer assesses the situation. When it is safe to do so, Fire will respond. This policy and practice is called “staging.” Typically, this response is based initially on information received from the 911 caller. This strategy is increasingly employed in today’s public safety environment, where first responders often encounter unpredictable and potentially dangerous situations.
Responding to the Complex Public Safety Call on June 3
Some community members, in reaction to media coverage from a local outlet, have raised concerns about the handling of a 911 call on June 3, during which Fire staged until Police arrived. First and foremost, I would like everyone to know that our entire team has taken these concerns seriously, including steps to ensure that response protocols are effectively delivering emergency services. In addition, we have and will continue to provide as much information as we can in response to public records requests. Because this call involved a medical issue, the City is limited in what it can release or say about the incident.
Importantly, the individual received emergency medical care on scene and was transported to the hospital. It should be noted that there was more to the call that explains the decision to dispatch both Police and Fire.
City Improvements Implemented and Review Underway
This call brought to light a number of areas for procedural improvements. In fact, several have already been made, including modifications to department policies and practices and additional staff training. These improvements help ensure timely arrival of police officers and fire personnel to emergency calls together and that individuals get the help they need as quickly as possible.
The chart below provides a summary of adjustments or modifications implemented:
The City is currently reviewing other areas for improvement.
Responsiveness to Public Records Requests
Media reports on the June 911 call have raised questions about the City’s public records policies. On average, the City of Palo Alto receives roughly ten or more public records requests each week. Records can be requested through the City Clerk’s Office. Each request typically requires assignment to staff, who then search for City records that respond to the request. If needed, the City Attorney’s Office reviews the records to protect individual privacy and City employee privacy, as well as other rules consistent with state statute. In the case of records related to the June 3 call, the City balanced transparency with protecting individual privacy.
As a public entity, the City’s approach to transparency is to share information equally to all. In this case, the individual wanted to waive some of their privacy rights so the City could talk to one media outlet of their choice and requested to remain anonymous. The City declined.
I hope that this post has provided some insight into our team’s emergency response protocols and answers questions raised. Public safety services are complex, with high stakes work performed by our public safety personnel every day and night; we are grateful for their dedication. We remain committed to serving the community well.
Yours in Service,
Online Resources: Where to Learn More
To learn more about our Police Department, go here.
To learn more about our Fire Department, go here.
For the Police Department Policy Manual, go here.
For the Office of Emergency Services, go here.
To sign up for emergency alerts, go here.