A century of service: Parade celebrates Menlo Park fire district's centennial


"Put the blue stuff on the red stuff." Reduced to such simple terms, the core imperative of firefighting makes it sound almost too easy. Yet moving water from point A to point B while protecting the inhabitants of the Menlo Park area in many other ways has kept the Menlo Park Fire Protection District on its toes over its first 100 years.

A parade Saturday on Santa Cruz Avenue in downtown Menlo Park celebrated the district's centennial. At least 40 firefighting and emergency-response vehicles, some dating to the 19th century, were wheeled down the four-block parade route, serving as a moving time capsule of the past century and more.

Children in firefighter costumes waved eagerly as current and retired firefighters marched or rode down the avenue. Afterward, the vehicles were on display in the parking lot between Santa Cruz and Oak Grove avenues across from Fire Station 6.

In 1916, when the local community decided to create the fire district, "the biggest risk they faced was fire," Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman says.

The district's original boundaries covered about 12 square miles, according to the Menlo Park Historical Association. Its boundaries today cover about 30 square miles and encompass Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto, North Fair Oaks and other areas of unincorporated San Mateo County.

One man who has seen a large portion of the district's first century is Tom Carter. "I was born into the fire service," he says.

His dad, George Carter, was a firefighter, and Tom, who was born in 1935, spent his first two years living next door to the old Menlo Park fire station, located on Merrill Street, near where Kepler's and Cafe Borrone are now.

His family later moved to a larger home in Menlo Park, but he kept close ties to the fire district. At age 4, he got to ride on the district's 1899 hose wagon in a July Fourth parade with his father by his side. The wagon, drawn by horses, was used by volunteer firefighters to carry hose to a fire. During Saturday's parade, Tom Carter rode on that same wagon.

When he grew up, Tom and his dad, who by then was the fire chief, served together with the fire district from 1953 until his father retired in 1972. Tom says sometimes his dad was tougher on him than other firefighters, but they had a great relationship.

"Big fires are exciting, but the most fulfilling thing is the gratification you get from helping people," he says.

The fire district helps in many ways beyond fighting fires. Much of the district's work today involves responding to medical calls and vehicle accidents.

In 1991 the district became part of the South Bay Water Rescue Team, in a joint powers agreement with the Palo Alto Fire Department. That team conducts water rescues in the bay, using an air boat to traverse muddy regions between tides.

The district also does fire prevention work and organizes community fire protection and education programs, including training volunteers to serve on its Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

In the last 100 years, Chief Schapelhouman says, district firefighters have been on the scene of major catastrophes, not just here but across the country, including the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City.

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