Almanac

Cover Story - January 13, 2010

The siren call

Ollie Brown retires — for third time — from fire district

by Renee Batti

Ollie Brown heard the call to service as a firefighter more than six decades ago. That call came, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the form of sirens blaring from trucks leaving the fire station he grew up near in Toledo, Ohio — exciting a little boy who dreamed of being on those trucks, rushing off to a fire.

"I would go down there to look at the fire trucks," he says, recalling a time when he was far too young to apply for a job but longed for the day he would qualify. "I never wanted to do anything else," he says in a recent interview.

Now 71, Mr. Brown reflects fondly on a 35-year career on staff with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, several years of district contract work afterwards, and eight years as a member of the district's fire board — 47 years, all told.

Retiring first in 1993, he was asked to come back on contract, and stayed until he retired again in 1997. He didn't stay away for long, though: He was elected to the board in 2001. But when he stepped down from that post in December, he retired from the district a third and, he says, final time.

The district honored Mr. Brown and Peter Carpenter, also retiring from the board, for their years of service at a Nov. 17 ceremony. Taking up their posts are Jack Nelson and Stephen Nachtsheim.

Dramatic changes

The scale of change Mr. Brown has seen since he was hired by then-fire chief George Carter in 1958, at age 19, is enormous — from the hiring process to training and firefighting methods.

Mr. Brown had come to Southern California from Toledo in 1958, following his girlfriend, Pat, and her family. She soon became his wife, and they his in-laws. But before that was to happen, he needed a steady job.

Although he found work in construction, the sirens still called to him. Someone he knew worked for the Menlo Park fire district, and urged him to apply. "Chief Carter interviewed me and said, 'you're hired,'" he says. "I took the job, and took a cut in pay."

Things happened quickly from there. Within days, Pat graduated from high school (a Thursday); the next day, the high school sweethearts were married; and the following Monday, the couple moved to Menlo Park and he began work as a firefighter.

In those days, firefighters were required to live in the district. For one thing, Mr. Brown explains, they had to be able to hear the horns on top of the fire stations when they sounded the call to report for duty — the standard notification system back then.

"It happened regularly," he says. "There were a tremendous amount of (building) fires in those days — there were no early detection systems."

The pay scale was such that "we all worked on our days off on other jobs," Mr. Brown says. Their moonlighting jobs had to be within the district, though, because even on their days off they were on call, at $14 a day.

Back then, Mr. Brown notes, firefighters received about two weeks of training, compared with months of extensive training today. When they "suited up" to go to a fire, they put on mostly hand-me-downs, sometimes in disrepair. "We had rips in our coats a lot," he laughs.

"The biggest change in the (profession) is that young firefighters today are much safer," Mr. Brown says. And, he notes, with far more training in fire suppression and in administering emergency medical aid, firefighters today are "far superior than we were — they really are good at what they do."

During his years on staff with the district, Mr. Brown rose through the ranks quickly, advancing within a year to engineer, then filling officer positions including captain, battalion chief and acting fire chief. During those early years, he also earned college degrees, in fire sciences at the College of San Mateo, and in management at the University of Santa Clara.

Fire board service

After eight years on the fire board, Mr. Brown is ready for a rest. But he is satisfied with a number of accomplishments, including his work, along with then-board member Del Krause, in guiding the district to retiring its debt.

Mr. Brown worked for most of his eight-year tenure on the board's finance subcommittee, helping to plan funding for capital projects including seismic retrofitting of fire stations, and equipment-replacement and infrastructure projects.

Other accomplishments, he says, include helping to establish automatic aid programs among jurisdictions, "removing barriers between communities" and ensuring that crews from the nearest fire stations, regardless of jurisdiction, would respond to emergencies.

He beams when speaking of the 2007 appointment of Harold Schapelhouman as fire chief. Mr. Brown recalls that he was a training officer when Mr. Schapelhouman began his 28-year tenure with the district. "I'm very, very proud of Chief Schapelhouman," he says. "It's been so gratifying to see (his) promotion."

Mr. Brown says one of his greatest disappointments as he leaves the board is that the impasse in labor negotiations between the district and firefighters wasn't resolved. "It's troubling that we never came to a solution — it's very difficult for me."

Retirement at last

Mr. Brown says he intends to do some volunteer work, now that he has more time. One of his great pleasures these days is his morning get-together with fellow retirees at Le Boulanger in downtown Menlo Park — a group that calls itself the Coffee Bunch.

The group is about 20 strong, and usually about eight to 10 of them show up daily to tell stories about early days in the district and in the community. As the group's members get older, "we're getting louder," he acknowledges with a laugh.

The community in which he has lived and worked for 52 years is a source of deep love and appreciation. "I feel tremendous gratitude to the district and the community," he says.

He and Pat have lived on Hobart Street since 1962 — a "wonderful" neighborhood where "everyone is always there for each other." The Browns have two adult children, Amy Estkowski of Menlo Park and Oliver Brown IV of Hillborough.

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