First beacon box installed in Malibu

Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti, Councilmember Mikke Pierson, Public Safety Commission Vice-Chair Doug Stewart, Interim City Manager Steve McClary, Fire Safety Liaison Chris Brossard, Public Safety Manager Susan Dueñas, Big Rock Mesa Property Owners Association members Collin Drummond, Peter Monge, and Janet Fulk, and Shea Broussard, co-founder of FlameMappers, were on hand for the installation of the City’s new Beacon Boxes on Thursday, Feb. 24. Contributed photo.

Another tool to help fight fires has debuted in Malibu. The city’s first beacon box was just installed in Big Rock. The box, the first of a planned 47 in total, will help aid out-of-town engine companies who are unfamiliar with Malibu neighborhoods located up twisting canyons.

Beacon boxes are metal containers that hold detailed, laminated maps of neighborhoods. The boxes can be opened by fire crews, especially those from outside Malibu who may need help locating turnaround streets and fire hydrants.

“One of the problems identified after the Woolsey Fire was that out-of-town firefighting companies were unsure and hesitant to go up into some of the neighborhoods because they didn’t know if there would be a turnaround. It’s a risky endeavor, especially if you don’t know if there’s a turnaround for a big fire truck. They usually won’t. It’s too dangerous,” commented Susan Duenas, City of Malibu Public Safety Manager. “The thought was to provide access to maps at the entrance to these neighborhoods. The maps show streets, turnaround places, hydrants, and other water sources including from private pools.” The boxes are intended to solve the problem of hesitancy to enter Malibu neighborhoods in a risky fire emergency.

Beacon boxes are roughly two feet tall by 15-inches wide and roughly eight inches deep. They are constructed of metal and securely locked, only to be opened by fire personnel. A solar-powered beacon is affixed to the outside, so the box is visible at night or if light is obscured by smoke.

The beacon boxes are not free-standing. They must be secured to a post. “Hopefully, an existing post, or we’ll have to install one,” said Duenas. The city is already in talks with Cal Trans to use some of the agency’s existing posts in Malibu.

The boxes are pricey. Each one costs just under $3,000. The city previously approved a $90,000 budget to purchase them. Duenas explained the high cost. “Like anything that’s custom made, and this is brand new—we’re the first city to have them. They’re not made in volume at this point. Plus, we’re not just paying for the box. We’re paying for the maps. They’re custom-made. They are proprietary items. A lot of work went into validating them. It was labor-intensive.”

After lengthy delays during the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain interruptions, 30 boxes have arrived. The city is still waiting on 17 more. The 47 boxes will be placed in the City of Malibu proper. Most locations will be off Pacific Coast Highway or off Kanan at the entrances to neighborhoods and enclaves; however, the maps inside are reported to include adjacent neighborhoods just outside city limits. The locations were identified by the city’s first fire safety liaison, Jerry Vandermeulen, who has since retired, and the Public Safety Commission. Neighborhoods were identified where the boxes would be “most useful,” according to Duenas.

The timeline to install more boxes will be site-dependent “at locations where there’s an existing pole. If it’s a city pole, it will be quick. If the pole belongs to another agency, we will have to get permission. If there is no pole or post, the city will have to get a permit to install one,” Duenas explained.

Residents of Malibu West already privately funded and installed a beacon box for their neighborhood as the city was investigating, budgeting, and waiting for its shipment of city boxes.

“We want people to be patient because it could take some time. Every beacon box will be different. Some will be installed quickly. Some will take more time. Please be patient while we work through these conditions,” urged Duenas.

The Safety Manager concluded, “There’s no silver bullet in firefighting, but there is silver buckshot. With fire safety, you have to approach it from every angle you can. The beacon boxes are one thing. Home hardening is one thing. Emergency preparedness is another. There is so much we can do that constitutes the buckshot as opposed to just one answer to the problem.”