Six-hour fire board meeting yields fresh ideas for future | August 15, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - August 15, 2018

Six-hour fire board meeting yields fresh ideas for future

by Barbara Wood

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 that 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 is lifeblood

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 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.

"Water is the lifeblood of the firefighter," Chief Harold Schapelhouman 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," he said.

Board member Virginia Chang Kiraly said she agreed 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 didn't want to be seen as carpetbaggers "who try to solve problems with money."

"We need to kind of caution ourselves, we're not this 'big daddy' to come in with a lot of money to plunk down for whatever the issue is," he said. "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 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 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 chart)," 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 Midpeninsula's Emergency Services District," Bernstein said.

Chang Kiraly suggested 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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