Harold Schapelhouman, the chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, said that when he agreed to appear in advertisements for Pacific Gas & Electric Company this past summer, he never imagined it would lead to threats of physical violence and a spate of nasty phone calls and emails.
Nor, says the chief, did he imagine that his face would show up — much bigger than life-size — in full-page newspaper ads around the Bay Area, including some areas devastated by the North Bay fires.
He began working with PG&E on the print and television ads in August, he says, well before fires broke out in several North Bay counties early in October.
While the cause of the fires has not yet been determined, some have blamed faulty PG&E equipment. On Feb. 3, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that more than 100 lawsuits have been filed against PG&E by individuals blaming it for the fires. Sonoma County has also announced plans to sue the utility, the newspaper reported.
"It's been an interesting couple of months," said Chief Schapelhouman recently. He started receiving calls and emails in December, he said, and was still receiving them. On Feb. 8, he received an anonymous phone message from a man who threatened a beating because of his appearance in the ads. "He said you'd better be looking over your shoulder, because I'm coming for you," the chief said.
Chief Schapelhouman said he was asked last year by Frank Fraone, a retired fire district division chief and now a PG&E senior public safety specialist, if he'd be willing to participate in an ad campaign for the agency. The chief said he'd seen ads for PG&E done by fire departments in Auburn and Salinas.
The chief said he agreed "only if we could highlight the training facility" the district has operated on PG&E land near the Dumbarton Bridge for 28 years.
The appearance of ads in the counties that had not yet recovered from the fires was not something Chief Schapelhouman said he anticipated.
"You don't always control something when it's out there," Mr. Schapelhouman said of the ad campaign, which also included television spots. "I didn't realize how big this ... would be," he said, adding it was "much more grandiose than I had ever anticipated."
In a statement posted on the district's website, Mr. Schapelhouman said: "As far as (PG&E's) corporate practices and liability related to the recent fires, those are areas of concern and something I am closely watching. We would ask that they immediately stop using our agency and relationship for promotion if these claims were substantiated."
If he ever did this again, he said, he would put boundaries around the placement and scale of the advertising.
"For those who would accuse me of not being empathetic to those who lost their lives, were injured or lost their homes and property, sadly I'm extremely familiar with many major tragedies and horrific events with major loss of life and injuries. It never gets easier," Mr. Schapelhouman told the Almanac.
Chief Schapelhouman said the ads are "factual." In the print ad he said, in part, "We rely on PG&E every day when we have an incident to be there as quickly as possible to help us de-energize power lines or to secure gas and utilities ... PG&E is a partner with the fire service. We rely on them and they rely on us."
The ad also talks about the training facility. "It's inherent to this job that there is risk. So, we try and meet those risks with training. With knowledge. With capability. PG&E is our partner in that training," the chief said.
The television ad shows Menlo Park firefighters getting ready to respond to a call and then cuts to the chief talking about how important PG&E is as a partner to the fire district. Later it shows firefighters and PG&E crews working together.
A link to the ad on YouTube no longer functions.
Chief Schapelhouman says he was not paid by PG&E, and that he has no immediate plans to retire, so he hasn't thought about going to work for the utility.
"My bill at home didn't go down," he said.
In fact, Mr. Schapelhouman said, his status as a star in a PG&E ad also hasn't done any good in trying to get PG&E out to turn on the utilities at the new Oak Grove fire station in Menlo Park.
On-duty fire district personnel participated in the filming, and would have left if they received a call, he said. The chief was on his lunch break, and a battalion chief participated on his day off.
Nobody had to do it," Mr. Schapelhouman said.
When asked why PG&E was running the advertising campaign, spokesman Ari Vanrenen said the ads "help communicate how we work together and train with first responders to benefit our customers, their families and the communities we serve."
He said the advertising is paid for by shareholders, not the utility's customers.
Fire board President Chuck Bernstein said the ad was not approved by the board, but that "the board has designated the chief as its primary spokesman in all matters."
"The first I knew of it was when I saw it on television," he said.
Mr. Bernstein said he thinks the ad "makes our district look very professional and competent, in large part due to the chief's appearance."
The chief said a few of the approximately 18 calls and emails he has received were positive.
"I don't feel like I was used," he said.
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