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June 16th, 2010
Council votes against buying GPS system for emergency vehicles


San Marcos City Council members struck down a budgeted GPS system that would allow emergency services vehicles to turn red lights green as they passed through intersections.

Council members cited the $300,000 price tag as their primary concern for not wanting to purchase the system, which some members questioned if it was necessary for San Marcos.

Councilmember John Thomaides said there were good arguments for and against the system, but ultimately voted nay.
“As one of the council members who championed the ‘smart light’ system, I’ve been underwhelmed,” Thomaides said. “I’m just a little fearful this one is going to be even more complicated.”

Thomaides said ultimately it has to be about where the council is spending city money.

Assistant Fire Chief Len Nored said the system would decrease emergency response times by 20 percent or less. He said it has existed for more than 20 years, but it was never necessary in San Marcos until recently. Nored said average response times are increasing in San Marcos as the city expands and this system could help alleviate it. Currently the average response time is about 5 minutes and thirty seconds, and he hoped to bring it down to about four and a half minutes. He also cited improved response times as “a major benchmark” for the fire department.

“Traffic is getting heavier, response times are slowly increasing,” Nored said. “We want a safer avenue of response and it will benefit citizens as much as us.”

Furthermore, Nored said the system, when implemented in other cities, helped reduce the amount of crashes at intersections resulting from the presence of emergency vehicles. He said emergency vehicles can cause both civilian vehicles to collide and fire, police and ambulances to crash with other cars.

Nored said emergency services vehicles in San Marcos will consistently turn off their lights and wait for traffic to flow again if they are at a congested intersection.

“At the east access of Aquarena, in many cases all lanes are backed up, and there’s no place for cars to go safely,” Nored said. “For the safety of everyone there we will turn off the lights. If people are at a light and there’s sirens behind them, they want to help, they will move and it can cause accidents.“

However, when asked how many accidents had been caused by this situation, Nored said he knew of none in San Marcos.

Councilmember Ryan Thomason said he talked to fire fighters who told him the system was too costly and not worth it. Thomason said he did not get the firefighters’ permissions to go on record with their names, but “they weren’t new on the job.”
“Their first response was, ‘well, we’ve been getting through these lights for decades,’” he said.

Thomason said he does not believe the nay vote made anybody more unsafe, but “you have to know where to draw the line.”

Thomason also questioned if the system was right for San Marcos. Thomason said he saw the benefit in a city with a grid system like Austin, but San Marcos’ twisting roads and loops might lessen the effectiveness.

Sabas Arila, assistant director of public service, said the GPS system would correspond with emergency vehicles’ turn signals, so sharp turns and corners wouldn’t deter its effectiveness.

Councilmember Chris Jones cited another cost concern. He said when he first came to San Marcos in 2001 the city was working on a system to synchronize traffic lights. Now that the city has implemented the system, Jones said, he is afraid this new system could disrupt the synchronization.

“I’m not comfortable voting for it right now,” Jones said. “We dumped a lot of money in traffic sync.”

Councilmember Kim Porterfield was the lone aye vote for the system.

“I felt this was a good idea,” she said. “But maybe its time is just not now.”

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