News - December 1, 2010

Fire board to appoint Ohtaki successor

by Sandy Brundage

With Peter Ohtaki departing the Menlo Park fire district board to take a seat on the Menlo Park City Council, the fire board is working on appointing his successor.

The board chose to appoint because it didn't want the expense of a special election, said Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. Four people have shown an interest in the position. The board plans to conduct interviews Thursday, Dec. 9, and then make a decision.

"I'm sad to see Director Ohtaki leave, because he provided real service and was a great benefactor for the district," said Chief Schapelhouman. "But it will be good to have someone familiar with the fire protection district on the council, because sometimes it feels like they're not paying attention to our issues."

San Carlos a no-go

The board also decided to not pursue a contract to provide fire services to San Carlos, given the challenges of the economy.

"We didn't want to weaken or disadvantage our district while helping San Carlos save money," Chief Schapelhouman said. He described emergency services in the county as a quilt, thanks to automatic aid agreements between jurisdictions, and said that when one piece acts independently — as San Carlos did in October when that city's council voted to outsource its fire department — the structure of the entire network weakens.

Randy Royce, mayor of San Carlos, said change, through competition, doesn't have to weaken services. "I come from high-tech in Silicon Valley, and many times, change un-weakens. Sometimes when there's change it's a tense moment, but if you operate a city more like a business — we changed our parks and recreation maintenance, for example, which was costing us $744,000, and we're now doing it for $281,000," he said. "A lot of people used the word 'weaken.' But if you go through city hall right now the grass looks pretty good and it's costing us one-third as much.

He remains optimistic about the city's options for fire services, with more than a month left before the request for proposals expires.

The state's Cal Fire also decided to not bid on the contract, but Redwood City and San Mateo remain options for San Carlos, among others. Chief Schapelhouman said the other departments are already challenged; Redwood City in particular is using a ladder truck on medical calls instead of reserving the specialized equipment for fires.

"We won't be negatively impacted by neighboring agencies who need to reduce services. That's a real key thing for us," the chief said. "We're one of the largest fire agencies in the county. We can fully staff a first-alarm assignment, so we're big enough to handle not only our own emergencies, but also big enough to help our neighbors and we're happy to do it. But San Carlos has myopically done an analysis of their own response area. You have to consider the impact on everyone, not just San Carlos."


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