News - January 26, 2011

Did fire chief put TV show appearance ahead of responding to an accident?

by Dave Boyce

There is little or no disagreement from Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman on the facts in a Jan. 18 e-mail sent to the Almanac from the firefighters union president. The e-mail criticizes the chief's decision to hold back a fire crew from responding to a nearby accident that involved a young bicyclist.

A 911 call came in at 3:37 p.m. on Oct. 25, 2010, about an accident at Santa Cruz Avenue and Johnson Street in Menlo Park. A Station 6 crew was in the firehouse kitchen on Oak Grove Avenue a few blocks from the accident, but Chief Schapelhouman, who was also there, told the crew to stay put and let the call go to Station 4 at Alameda de las Pulgas and Valparaiso Avenue.

He had declared the Station 6 crew as "out of service." A TV crew from the ABC affiliate Channel 7 was there to capture a live feed of the firefighters, in the firehouse kitchen, demonstrating the best place for a kitchen fire extinguisher.

The Station 4 crew arrived at the accident scene in four minutes and 16 seconds, Chief Schapelhouman said, adding that while the distance may have added a minute or two to the response time, it was well under the required maximum of six minutes and 59 seconds.

The victim in the accident, a 17-year-old girl on a bike and wearing a helmet, collided with a vehicle at a bike speed of 2 mph and fell off, Chief Schapelhouman said. Since she was an unaccompanied minor, by law she had to be taken to the hospital; she complained of leg and hip pain, the chief said. Her injuries were such that the ambulance did not use flashing lights or sirens and drove at normal speeds, he said.

The Station 6 crew were closest and should have handled the call, said Ed Hawkins, the president of San Mateo County Firefighters IAFF Local 2400, which represents Menlo Park district firefighters and has been in a long dispute with the district over contract conditions.

"Firefighters are mothers and fathers, too," Mr. Hawkins said in an e-mail. "We find it very frustrating that a fire chief could determine that his appearance on TV was more important than providing care to a juvenile who was hit by a car."

In an interview, Mr. Hawkins said that he had heard an account of the incident from a member of the Engine 6 crew, and that the topic had come up in several meetings since October.

"An incident like that is really the kind of thing that drives these guys crazy," Mr. Hawkins said. "Their morale just crashes. These guys just want to go out there and get the job done."

The TV crew had arrived about two hours ahead of time to set up the shooting, and the fire crew had been designated as "out of service" for a total of 22 minutes, the chief said.

The 911 call came about four minutes into the demonstration, the chief said.

Fire crews are declared out of service frequently to undergo training or testing or attend meetings, the chief said. Being a firefighter "is not all about emergency response," he added. "Public education is a big part of it."

Chief Schapelhouman said in a later interview that he has informed the district Board of Directors about this e-mail from the firefighters union and that he was open to an investigation and peer review of his actions that day. "I think that's a good public process," he said.


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