When the sirens turn on, the lights will turn green.
At least they will at some of Costa Mesa’s busiest intersections, where stoplights will soon help first-responders cut through congestion by anticipating the paths of emergency vehicles and changing accordingly.
The Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the installation of what’s known as an Emergency Vehicle Preemption (EVP) system at 25 intersections in the northern part of the city.
“Every minute counts, and this will allow the emergency vehicles to change the lights to green so they can get to that person in need or distress” without being slowed by red lights, Mayor Jim Righeimer said at the council meeting.
The technology, which will be used by 20 Fire Department vehicles, can shave as much as 20% from response times, according to Costa Mesa Fire Chief Dan Stefano.
The installation will be concentrated around South Coast Plaza, a hot-spot for congestion in Costa Mesa.
All of the EVP-equipped signals are along Bear and Bristol streets, Sunflower Avenue and Anton Boulevard, according to a city staff report.
“We do have a couple of other areas that have as much congestion,” Stefano said, “but obviously, due to costs, we had to prioritize.”
Harbor Boulevard and 17th and 19th streets could be the next candidates for EVP when funding becomes available.
Although the technology is more than 20 years old, concerns about costs and the effect on traffic have kept some cities from adopting it.
The cost to equip Costa Mesa’s 25 designated signals within the next three months will run $234,236 and possibly an additional $25,000 to cover Caltrans permits and any unexpected costs, according to the staff report. Maintenance costs will run about $14,000 a year.
“It’s something we’ve been looking at for more than a decade, but I think that the timing now is great,” Stefano said.
By waiting so long to adopt the technology, Costa Mesa will be able to install a version that uses GPS, something early adopters would have to install as an upgrade.
In older EVP systems, vehicles would need to be within a certain visual range of a traffic signal to trigger it with an infrared beam or by other technological means.
“The difference with the GPS is it’s able to forecast,” Stefano said, letting Fire Department vehicles initiate signal changes around corners or in advance, as needed.
The Costa Mesa Fire Department’s trucks will still be equipped with the infrared version of the EVP in case they cross into cities that don’t have the newer technology.
Costa Mesa is able to afford the new technology in part because of the recent restructuring of the Fire Department, Stefano said.
In May, the City Council approved department changes designed to save about $1.8 million a year.
The plan closed a fire station, reduced the number of personnel on duty at any given time and included a list of more than a dozen recommended improvements.
"[EVP] was one of those at the top of the list,” Stefano said.
The department may face more changes. The talk is about having a paramedic on the scene of every fire call in the city and possibly reducing engine crews from four firefighters to three.
“Every day there’s something that’s setting up for the next move,” Stefano said.