Traffic jams and confusion could have been avoided with a public address system, neighborhood leaders say

By Gary Walker  

The freak Venice Beach lightning strikes that killed a college student and sent eight others to the hospital on July 31 also pointed out a deficiency in emergency response and evacuation protocol, say community leaders calling for the installation of a public address system and more active traffic control measures at the beach.

“As I understand it, within the first 20 minutes [after the lightning strikes], no one left the beach area because all of the cars were backed up,” said Venice Neighborhood Council Vice President Marc Saltzberg. “They couldn’t get out and they didn’t know how to get out. So that’s a real issue.”

Saltzberg is calling for discussion of the beach’s emergency response resources at Tuesday’s neighborhood council meeting.

In addition to a P.A. system and the personnel that would be needed to operate it, he would also like the council to discuss whether city employees should be deployed to direct beach-related traffic on busy days. Saltzberg said city workers have been stationed at the beach to direct traffic during summer weekends and holidays during previous years, and he isn’t sure why that stopped.

Robin Rudisill, a member of the council’s Public Health and Safety Committee who lives a short distance from the southern portion of the beach where many lightning strike victims were treated, said she believes fire department vehicles had trouble getting to the area because of heavy traffic.

Los Angeles Fire Dept. spokesman Peter Sanders said the engines that responded to the lightning strikes came from Playa Vista and Westchester stations because firefighters at nearby Fire Station 63 in Venice were out on another emergency.

“Engine 67 [from Playa Vista] arrived in nine minutes, as did the Westchester engine. That takes into account that it was a busy Sunday afternoon and they were going up Lincoln Boulevard. I’m not sure that they could have arrived any sooner,” Sanders said.

Saltzberg said the city should consider programming maps and shortcuts into iPads used by firefighters to help them navigate unfamiliar areas more quickly.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, has pushed to equip firefighters with iPads and the city recently completed the first phase of a pilot rollout.

“How do [firefighters] know what to do to get to the beach when they can’t go through the street?  This could go hand in hand with Councilman Bonin’s efforts to improve the technology for the city’s emergency responders,” Saltzberg said.

Sanders said he would bring Saltzberg’s idea to department leadership.

“All area captains have maps of neighboring districts, but it’s good for all of them to know the beach area and the shortcuts,” he said.

Bonin, meanwhile, said he would seek grant funding to pay for a Venice Beach public address system.

“I think it’s a good and useful tool for a venue that attracts tens of millions of people a year,” Bonin said.

Rudisill also likes the idea.

“Having a centralized location where people on the boardwalk and on the beach can be notified quickly in an emergency can make a difference in saving lives,” she said.

But this isn’t the first time the issue has come up. The Venice Neighborhood Council already voted on Dec. 2   in favor of asking Los Angeles city officials to install a public address system at the beach for emergency and evacuation purposes.

But for the PA system to be effective, said Saltzberg, it would also require someone to be on site at the beach operating the system and providing accurate instructions and also allow for off-site public safety officials to access the system remotely.

“There’s no question that a public address system to help direct all the beachgoers — not just in existing the beach area during a lightning storm, but in how to exit the beach area during a lightning storm so as not to create a traffic jam [that could slow evacuation and emergency response efforts],” Saltzberg said.