For about eight years, the Santa Ana Fire Department has been waiting for the green light on technology that people like Chief Marc Martin say would make emergency responses faster and safer.
As with all traffic jams, that city hasn't been alone.
Known as "traffic signal preemption," the technology works by providing right-of-way access to emergency vehicles as they maneuver through intersections.
A transmitter in the fire vehicle activates a detector at the intersection. Ambulances and firetrucks--and in a few instances, police cars--get a green light in their direction, avoiding choked up intersections or the need to swerve onto the wrong side of the road.
At a time when county streets are more congested than ever, most fire officials agree the devices save time to and from hospitals. Virtually all agree they make the hectic trips safer.
So why after a flurry of reports, including one by the Orange County Grand Jury, strongly urging the system be adopted countywide has only a fraction of the cities installed them?
Mostly it's money, officials say. Wiring one intersection can cost as much as $20,000 and rarely less than $5,000.
"The benefits of those devices are well documented," said Capt. Scott Brown of the Orange County Fire Authority, which serves 21 of the county's cities and unincorporated areas. "The problem is the cost attached to that technology."
Only six cities in the county have signal preemption devices at high-use intersections: Buena Park, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, San Clemente, Stanton and Westminster. That's an increase of one city since 1992. However, the county's two largest cities--Santa Ana and Anaheim--are inching closer to installing the devices.
After receiving a $500,000 state grant, Santa Ana started advertising for bids June 12 to install the devices along 1st, 17th and Main streets, Martin said.
Signal preemption had already been installed eight years ago along 4th Street as part of an experiment, the chief said.
Anaheim, meanwhile, has been equipping newly built emergency vehicles with special transmitters and is seeking funds for installing the devices along heavily traveled corridors, Division Chief Roger Smith said.
"It's an optimistic approach to put the transmitters in new trucks as they're being built, but we are optimistic," Smith said.
Santa Ana has wanted to install signal preemption in four new corridors, not three, Martin said, but money became a problem.
"It was depressing to find that the costs exceeded our funds," Martin said. "We're still going to try to get four corridors taken care of, but it could be hard."
Cities that have the system swear by it.
"They're proven to work. They've become second nature to our firefighters and paramedics, to the extent that they'll immediately notice if devices aren't working at an intersection," said Capt. Bob Brown of the Huntington Beach Fire Department, which has had the units for more than 15 years.
Fire departments across the state have estimated that signal preemption has cut response times by 17% to 25%.
The Orange County Fire Authority, urged on by the grand jury, has been working to begin installations. Money, however, is a problem, as well as criticism that the benefit is slight compared with the cost.
"Some people say a large, red fire engine with blaring horns is sufficient to traverse these corridors," said Ignacio Ochoa, the county's traffic engineer. "Many traffic engineers say the devices cause an unnecessary disruption to traffic signal patterns."
And although the grand jury recommended using Measure M transportation funds to pay for signal preemption, no city has done that. For the most part, road repairs, crime and other issues are much higher up on the priority list, officials say.
"In your whole lifetime, you may never call or need the fire department. Therefore, most people are not thinking that they're ever going to have to deal with response time," Martin said.
Meanwhile, a boom in construction of center medians along major streets presents another obstacle to emergency vehicles, city and fire officials say. While the landscaped structures enhance overall traffic flow and are attractive, they make it perilous for emergency vehicles to cross into opposing traffic when they must, fire officials say.
"In the most critical medical cases, brain material begins to die quite rapidly. We can't possibly get there in time to save a life or prevent major damage if you can't have the fastest response time possible," Martin said.
Brown said the county Fire Authority is consulting public works officials, city managers and others to determine the best way of spreading use of the technology.
In the meantime, the Fire Authority will soon launch an educational campaign to overcome what Brown and others say is the real obstacle to quick, safe emergency responses: driving habits.