Robert Jones establishes new 'firsts' on Menlo fire board | January 8, 2020 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - January 8, 2020

Robert Jones establishes new 'firsts' on Menlo fire board

by Rick Radin

East Palo Alto has typically been left out of the leadership of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which has served the bayside community since the district's founding in 1916.

That situation no longer exists now that East Palo Alto resident Robert Jones is on the district's board of directors and has been chosen unanimously as the board president for 2020.

In fact, Jones is the first East Palo Alto resident to head the board and the first African American board member in the fire district's history, he said.

After he was appointed to the board in late 2017 to replace Rex Ianson, Jones ran for election in 2018 and finished as the top vote-getter in a race among four candidates for three open seats, besting the two other winners, Jim McLaughlin and Chuck Bernstein.

Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said Jones' election is "long overdue in some ways."

"In the past, people in East Palo Alto have had so many other challenges and struggles that they haven't thought of the fire district as a place to run (for office)," Schapelhouman said. "Most of the residents face the challenge of living from paycheck to paycheck.

In a written statement, Schapelhouman added, "At his core, (Jones) cares very deeply about people, specifically their well-being and how we as an organization can best serve the entire community."

As a board member, Jones sided with Schapelhouman on a couple of the district's major spending decisions in 2019.

Jones and 2019 board president Virginia Chang-Kiraly supported the chief's recommendation to back a plan to install an emergency siren at the district's Station 2 in East Palo Alto, and also joined to vote in favor of submitting a letter of intent to purchase an all-electric firetruck.

Both proposals failed after Bernstein, McLaughlin and Rob Silano voted against them.

Although Menlo fire isn't ready for a districtwide rollout of the siren, known as a Long-Range Acoustical Device, which issues a loud recorded warning in the event of a fire or impending earthquake, putting one in Station 2 would have been a first step in a long-term process, Jones said.

Likewise, Jones sees the development of an all-electric fire engine as the wave of the future, despite criticisms about its limitations.

"In the district's history, we've gone from horse-driven firetrucks to diesel trucks, and now we can have an electric truck," he said.

"These are things that I could see in the long run for the district, in tune with what the future can hold to preserve life and protect people," Jones added. "We have to be quicker and better of what we do and innovation is part of it."

Community leader

Jones has a background in affordable housing development, having spent five years as a project developer with Eden Housing, the Hayward-based low-cost housing nonprofit.

He went on to lead EPA CAN DO, East Palo Alto's below-market-rate housing program, for five years.

Jones has also served as a board member for the East Palo Alto Senior Center, and is a graduate of San Jose State University with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in counselor education, according to the district's website.

Before joining the fire board, he was a board member for the district's CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) organization.

There are a number of issues on the horizon for the district in 2020 that Jones and the rest of the board will be dealing with, Schapelhouman said.

The district is looking for a deputy fire chief, who would have the responsibility of running the department in Schapelhouman's absence, and it will be in a hiring mode in general since several of the district's chief officers will be retiring or will be eligible for retirement this year, Schapelhouman wrote in an email.

In addition, the district plans to begin construction of a new $20 million Station 4; the existing station serves much of Atherton and is more than 70 years old.

The district will also be working with the city of Menlo Park to purchase a vacant lot at the corner of Ivy Drive and Willow Road for a new fire station for the Belle Haven and bayfront areas, as well as ordering three new fire engines and a ladder truck, Schapelhouman wrote.

"We will be expanding our service delivery, readiness and command and control capabilities by having two battalion chiefs on duty and located on both sides of the Fire District by July of 2020," he wrote. "There is currently only one battalion chief on duty daily."

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