If there's one message for the public that preoccupies Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, it is the importance of equipping homes and buildings with sprinkler systems that spray a room in the event of a fire.
So it was with hints of irony that Chief Schapelhouman, in a telephone interview, related the tale of a small early morning mattress fire on Wednesday, Aug. 6, in a bedroom at fire station No. 6 at Oak Grove Avenue and Hoover Street, a building not equipped with sprinklers.
"Bad things happen to good people," Chief Schapelhouman said with a barely detectible ironic note. "They were really lucky that they caught it."
The firefighters left the station at 3:36 a.m. to attend to someone with a severe diabetes reaction. Because the victim recovered and chose not to go to the hospital, the call was about an hour shorter than usual and brought the firefighters back to the station and a faint smell of smoke at about 4:25 a.m., Chief Schapelhouman said.
A search for something burning outside turned up nothing, but when a smoke alarm went off inside, they looked and found a smoldering mattress in one of the bedrooms.
A firefighter responding rapidly to the medical call had apparently bumped a magnetically attached reading lamp on his way out of bed, Chief Schapelhouman explained. "He didn't notice it, rushing to get out of the room," the chief said.
An incandescent bulb in the lamp burned its way through the sheet and mattress pad and into the mattress. Fire investigators will likely recommend avoiding the use of incandescent bulbs because they get so hot, he said.
The fire station, built in the 1950s in an era before sprinkler systems, is due to be replaced in about a year, he said, adding: "We're not looking to speed that up" by burning down the dormitory area.
The new station will have sprinklers and likely a computerized system that turns off unnecessary electrical devices as the firefighters leave the station on a call, he said.
An Almanac reporter noted that the fire alert did not show up on the Web site firedispatch.com, which alerts online subscribers to emergencies in San Mateo County. Mr. Schapelhouman replied: "It never made it to firedispatch.com because it was something-burning-in-the-station.com."