Six-hour fire board meeting yields fresh ideas


While the six-hour Menlo Park Fire Protection District board meeting on Saturday, July 28, was billed as a "Board Strategic Planning Study Session," the session ended with the district no closer to a strategic plan than it had been before the meeting.

A wide-ranging discussion by board members did, however, surface some new ideas for the board to further ponder, including whether the district might want to take "fire" out of its name and have an administrator, not a fire chief, as its top executive, or offer to help the communities it serves by spending money on projects that could help the district operate more effectively.

Board members started the meeting by discussing a strategic plan, which a recent critical report by the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury said the district sorely needs.

Board member Rob Silano cautioned that the board needs to be careful not to interfere with the multiyear accreditation process the district has begun, which mandates that a strategic plan be in place. "We don't want to mess up our accreditation process," he said.

Board member Peter Carpenter said the district already has a financial plan, a capital equipment and station plan, a fire response plan, a medical plan and a community disaster response plan in place. "Simply codifying the things that we have done would be a very helpful process, as opposed to creating something new," he said.

Carpenter said that much of what the district faces is out of its hands. "We have no control over growth," he said. "I think it's important to recognize that a lot of what we do is driven by other people. If something is driven by other people, you can't plan for it," he said.

Water delivery improvements?

Some board members recommended that the district use some of its funds to help the communities it serves (Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and adjacent unincorporated areas) make improvements that would also help emergency responders.

One suggested area of improvement is the water delivery system. District officials said because the system in some of the communities it serves is substandard, the district has been unable to receive the highest ranking from the Insurance Service Office (ISO), which some insurance companies use to set fire insurance premiums.

Silano suggested that the district might help pay for water infrastructure improvements. "Not only do we get a class-one rating out of it," but the communities get better water service, he said.

Carpenter raised another possible solution: "Maybe the best way to solve the problem is we buy them. But do we want to go into the water business? I don't know."

Board member Virginia Chang Kiraly said she agrees that the district might spend some of its money helping the communities it serves, with water a high priority. "Water is going to be our biggest challenge," she said. "Without adequate water, we can't do our job."

The district could also help fund projects to alleviate traffic backups, she said. "What can we do to collaborate to help our firefighters, for one thing, in terms of getting through traffic?" Chang Kiraly said.

But board member Robert Jones warned that the district doesn't want to be seen as carpetbaggers "who try to solve problems with money."

"We need to caution ourselves," he said. "We're not this 'big daddy' to come in with a lot of money to plunk down for whatever the issue is. Better to help them create a solution."

Carpenter said the district could offer to pay for a "state-of-the-art communications antenna" for Atherton's new civic center.

Emergency Services District?

The board recently renewed Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman's contract for an additional three years, but board members said they need to start planning for his eventual retirement.

Board president Chuck Bernstein suggested that when the district replaces Schapelhouman, it may want to hire an administrator as the district's top employee supervising a fire chief.

"We are larger than many, many small cities," Bernstein said. "I want to talk about an alternative" organizational structure he said.

"We should be looking at ourselves as a little city," he said.

Jones expressed some skepticism. "What company are we going to call this new organization?" he asked.

With fewer than 2 percent of the district's calls being for fires, Bernstein said, a name change seems reasonable. "I could see us being called the Midpeninsula's Emergency Services District," Bernstein said.

Chang Kiraly suggested that the fire district could eliminate its deputy chief position, which was added after Schapelhouman was paralyzed in a fall from a ladder in 2013 and missed eight months of work.

"I would like to question whether we need a deputy chief," Chang Kiraly said.

At the end of the meeting, Bernstein asked that a report summarizing the meeting be presented at the board's next meeting for a discussion of next steps.


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16 people like this
Posted by W.C.E.
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 8, 2018 at 7:26 pm

Let's hope this election yields some fresh Fire District Directors!

15 people like this
Posted by Julius
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Aug 8, 2018 at 7:35 pm

Quote of one board member, "I think it's important to recognize that a lot of what we do is driven by other people. If something is driven by other people, you can't plan for it," he said.”

Yes you can. That’s what strategic planning is. You have to anticipate the future, not just react to events.

I now understand better why the grand jury found the department deficient in strategic planning.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 8, 2018 at 7:43 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Julius - see this Almanac article -

Web Link

Now how exactly is the Fire Board going to anticipate a future that even the City Council , which controls development, could not foresee?

What the Fire District DID do to prepare for future growth was to acquire adjacent properties next to Stations 2,3,4, 6 and 1 - something that neither the City nor any school district has, regrettably, done.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 8, 2018 at 7:48 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Julius - please post links to Menlo Park's, Atherton's, East Palo Alto's and the County's strategic plans.

Comprehensive Plans, which deal only with zoning and do not include financial and infrastructure plannning, do not qualify as strategic plans.

2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 8, 2018 at 8:21 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

WCE - Since I, as an incumbent, will not be running for reelection you have until Aug. 15 to file your papers to run for the Fire Board. Since four very qualified individuals have already filed for the three open seats i doubt that you will chose to do so.

2 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 9, 2018 at 2:21 am

What model of public safety organizations does Director Bernstein want to use for the fire district? Current threads show public safety agencies that have not consolidated fire - police services, run just as well as consolidated public safety agencies.

It’s employees that work within the organization, answer the calls for service, go on long assignments, and for this fire district, get deployed all over the country. Those employees make the organization, not the elected officials.

Do you think that input by the chief and his staff would help structure this meeting? None of the fire board has never been a firefighter as defined as a still set of a Menlo Park Firefighter.

The fire board as a great combination of experience: some private and some public, but, a strategic plan needs to be prepared by the operational end of the organization, and the elected body, ( fire board ), needs to oversee, review, and provide leadership to the organization.

Looking at the current candidates, all are well qualified for the position. Many bring a different skill set.

We live in a great community. What a cross section of talent. Anyone who would want to run for this fire board shows me either their dedication to duty to the community or just plain crazy.

18 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 9, 2018 at 6:41 am

per the Board meeting video - sure looked like time not well spent.

4 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 9, 2018 at 7:02 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Peter is correct in that Menlo Park lacks a strategic plan like this excellent example from Tacoma, Washington. Web Link. (Appreciate your distinction regarding terminology as I thought that Strategic and Comprehensive were interchangeable.) At the January goal setting meeting, I would like our council to agree to the process of developing such a plan. I hope the Tacoma 2025 example is useful to others in their advocacy on this topic.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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