Retiring fire chief reflects on 40 years of protecting the community | July 23, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 23, 2021

Retiring fire chief reflects on 40 years of protecting the community

Harold Schapelhouman talks about the times he wanted to quit and the joy of persevering

by Kate Bradshaw

Harold Schapelhouman almost didn't become a Menlo Park firefighter.

The chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, who retired at the end of June after a 40-year career, was a student when his fellow firefighters-in-training at the Los Altos Fire Department woke him in the middle of the night and asked him to join them in taking the test for Menlo Park Fire.

Schapelhouman, then 20, needed some convincing. He had been passed over in his first effort to join the Los Altos firefighting staff and had recommitted himself to his college coursework. Sleepily, he went with his friends to stand in line at the station near St. Patrick's Seminary to take the test. The district had agreed to let in 100 people, first come, first served, and while in line, the friends were alarmed to see their positions grow farther and farther back as people arrived and cut in with friends who'd been saving them spots. At one point, a fight broke out, after which Menlo Park firefighters insisted that nobody could save spots in line.

Schapelhouman made his way in the door for that written test and passed it easily. But the physical test was another story. It had five grueling challenges, and to be considered for the district, each candidate had to complete all five. Fail one, and you were out.

The hardest was a timed test that required carrying more than 120 pounds of equipment up a training tower, and many strong-looking candidates were failing. Schapelhouman said he dropped the bag twice on his way up and was sure he would fail, until, finding an inner well of strength, he threw the bag up the last few stairs and jumped on top of it, with two seconds to spare.

"Can you do that?" he recalled asking.

"Heck yeah, that was awesome!" he was told.

He passed the other physical assessments and joined the district in June 1981, beginning his long career with the district that culminated with his retirement June 30 after 40 years of service, the last 15 of which he spent as the district's chief.

Harrowing calls, satisfying victories

Schapelhouman was born in Canada, and his family moved to Barron Park in Palo Alto when he was about 3 years old. His family lived in Mountain View and Los Altos, and as an adult, he lived in Sunnyvale and Fremont before settling in San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood, he said.

As a youth, he thought he'd pursue law enforcement work, joining a police explorer program. He eventually joined the fire class in Sunnyvale because it paid the best among local agencies, and it was there he fell in love with the art of fighting fire, he said.

He spent time after high school working in commercial construction, and he credits that work for not just helping him to build fitness but to develop an instinctual understanding of buildings, a skill that would set him apart later in a field dedicated to saving structures and their inhabitants during disasters.

When he first found his way to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which serves the communities of Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and unincorporated areas including North Fair Oaks, it had what he described as a paramilitary culture.

It wasn't an easy job, and there were plenty of dangers and lots of internal pressures within the department. The district was known for firing people regularly and often, he said.

The traumas of his job early on almost deterred him from the field, he said. He still remembers graphic details from the first death he witnessed on the job, of a man involved in a motorcycle accident on Constitution Drive.

"They gave it the best college try they could give it, but he didn't make it," he said. "I took that real hard."

He recalled ruminating on whether there was anything else he could have done to save the man.

"It messed me up for a while," he said. "I almost quit about six months in."

Over his years as a firefighter and first responder within the fire district, there were plenty of harrowing and traumatic calls, he remembers. There were fires in which children perished. Suicides witnessed and responded to. A call intended to blow up firefighters with propane bombs, in which the bombs miraculously did not explode. Hostage situations.

And, in the 1980s, there were many difficult calls due to the heroin epidemic and high crime rates, yielding a grim and repeating rhythm of "shooting, stabbing, assault, overdose," Schapelhouman said.

There were also challenging calls that came from scientific laboratory sites like Raychem and SRI, he said. He recalled responding to a call at an SRI building that wasn't marked from the outside, but inside had signage indicating the presence of radioactive materials. Experiences like that were especially scary because the responders didn't know the hazardous chemicals to which they might have been exposed.

And then there were the regular house fires with their own complexities, like when two overlapping roofs at a house on Altschul Avenue created a hidden fire, causing the roof to collapse immediately after a new fire chief had commanded him to step away. "We almost died that night," he recalled.

But there were victories too. He and his colleagues found and rescued an abandoned newborn from a dryer near Whiskey Gulch and named him Walter Millschap, a portmanteau of their names.

They succeeded in safely evacuating every child from a 1997 fire at Green Oaks Academy in East Palo Alto despite extremely hazardous conditions, including a faulty fire alarm and no sprinkler system.

"We got as close to 60 kids getting incinerated that day as you can get," he said.

It was even through the fire district that he met the woman who would later become his wife. She had come to see one of the district's exhibitions with one of the district's administrators. Schapelhouman was introduced later that night at the Oasis (a beloved Menlo Park watering hole that shuttered in 2018), and the two stayed in touch while she attended college in Santa Barbara. After she returned, single, they began dating and later married.

Over the years, Schapelhouman said he found ways to see a little irony where he could, like the wordplay when the Menlo Park French restaurant Le Pot au Feu experienced its own fire the restaurant's name means "pot on fire."

"It does take on a rhythm," he said. "Sometimes people don't say thanks or are not nice or are going through their own stuff you may not know about. ... We have to be professional to them. ... You can't take it personally or you're going to be a basket case."

He became part of the district's first group of emergency medical technicians and has seen the way first responders' skills have transformed from providing basic first aid to the more comprehensive responses that paramedics offer now. That transition, he said, "has been a huge evolution in patient care. We can save people (who) I would have said in the past we would have lost."

Meanwhile, those risks Schapelhouman was taking also had an impact on his home life, he said.

At one point, he said, he and his wife had a serious conversation. With the extremely risky work Schapelhouman took on, they worried about how a family would fit into the picture. Plus, Schapelhouman admits to having a workaholic streak. It was around that time that he stepped back from medic training to focus on search and rescue work and work toward more management-focused roles.

From search and rescue work to advocacy

Over the years, Schapelhouman kept working in his chosen field, developing a specialty in urban search and rescue operations. He played a pivotal role in creating Menlo Park's urban search and rescue team, and was called upon to respond to some of the worst national and international disasters of the past decades.

He and his team responded to the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, 9/11 in New York in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, among other disasters.

Schapelhouman's daughter, now 21, was born just months after he returned from a trip abroad to provide search and rescue aid during the Chi Chi earthquake in Taiwan in 1999.

Over time, Schapelhouman began to work more in the realm of fire prevention and advocacy. In the aftermath of the Green Oaks Academy fire, he pushed legislators to mandate that automatic sprinkler systems and fire alarms be installed on school campuses. The Green Oaks Family Academy Elementary School Fire Protection Act became law in 2002, but Schapelhouman expressed disappointment that the legislation didn't cover existing school campuses, just new ones.

He pushed for other common-sense measures from local agencies like for the district's emergency response vehicles to be exempted from FasTrak fees and fines when crossing the Dumbarton Bridge during emergency responses.

Through it all, he worked at mastering the art of staying professional through the trauma by seeking to do justice to the grand calling of firefighting, many people's last line of defense in the face of grave danger.

"The job essentially is bigger than any of us — the responsibility to protect the community and serve the community," he said. "If you can't do that with compassion and forgiveness in your heart and the ability to move past people who aren't nice to you, then this isn't the job for you. I'm not saying you get there overnight, but in the end, it's the reason the fire service is the most trusted profession."

"It's a job where you can find the better part of yourself, if you're looking," he said.

Things were going well with his search and rescue work and legislative advocacy when he was tapped to become the next fire chief. Schapelhouman said that he said no to the offer twice because he loved the work he was doing so much, traveling and pushing for policies and innovations that would help firefighters work more safely and effectively.

There had been turnover in the chief position and in the previous 21 years, nobody from within the department had been selected as chief, he said. He was cognizant that he only had a few years left until he could be fully vested in the district's pension system and didn't want to get fired or become a "casualty" of the district's board.

He finally took on the role March 31, 2006, after he was told that if he didn't, the next chief would come from outside of the district. He said he ran right into labor disputes and contract disagreements. At one point he received a vote of no confidence, which he said was "breathtakingly disappointing."

He channeled lessons about detail orientation he'd picked up from his father and his accountant brother as a youth, and kept working at it, he said.

A devastating fall and then a comeback

In May 2013, about seven years into his tenure as chief and after escaping unscathed from so many high-risk rescue situations, Schapelhouman was struck with a life-changing injury in his own backyard.

He fell off a ladder while trimming bushes and suffered paralyzing spinal cord injuries and a traumatic brain injury. He was left unable to walk and with only partial use of one hand. About nine months after the injury, he resumed the role of chief, this time from a wheelchair.

Coming back wasn't easy, he said. He brought in attorneys to push for his return to the chief position, and took steps to ensure he could still do the job well, like finding specialists to evaluate him and securing the right adaptive equipment.

"It was a real privilege to come back and prove I can do the job and be able to do it and do it well," he said. "Every single day you've got to do the job, whether your body's cooperating or not cooperating. I was able to do that. I worked extremely hard."

After he returned, he said he helped to come up with a five-year agreement with the district's union that provided stability to the organization among other initiatives he's led since returning to the department after his injury.

After 40 years in the field, Schapelhouman said he's proud of the financial direction of the district as well, over the course of his career seeing a transition from firefighters being equipped with substandard gear to top-of-the-line technology, including an ambitious drone program, earthquake warning systems, and thermal imaging equipment.

"Fire seasons aren't getting smaller. They're getting bigger, and I worry about firefighter safety," he said.

Another 40 years from now, he said, he's hoping the district will continue to adapt by gaining knowledge, technology, and convenience through automation.

But there still will be fires, and there will continue to be firefighters.

"Somebody has to do the dirty work," he said. "Somebody has to go out and do the patient care."

Fittingly, Schapelhouman's last day was dedicated to a ceremony to promote staff members of the fire district. He credits the community and the staff of the district for shaping his life in a profound way.

"What made me what I am is the people here and the calls here," he said.

The district board also had its own concrete step to commemorate Schapelhouman's legacy in the community. The fire truck museum at the district's newly rebuilt Oak Grove Avenue site will bear his name.

Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 12, 2021 at 10:16 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The Fire Service is not just a job or just a profession but rather it is a Calling.

Harold responded to that Calling as a young man 40 years ago and he has never either looked back or failed to live up to the principles of that Calling. He has held almost every rank in the Fire District and held each with distinction.

He has served our community both here and throughout the nation in responding to many disasters including Oklahoma City, World Trade Center, the Columbia Space Shuttle recovery and too many hurricanes to count.

I am confident that if Harold had the choice, he would have been working at the pile in Sunrise Florida rather than being at this retirement ceremony.

He is outspoken on any issue where there is a threat to our community even when doing so was not politically correct.

He has helped make the Fire District one of the most innovative in the Nation and he was one of the key players in the creation of the National Urban Search and Rescue Teams.

Although he had earned his full retirement a decade ago, he has continued to serve for ten more years because of his love for the Calling and his devotion to our community.

And the unsung heroes behind every firefighter are her/his family who patiently waited for them to return from extra shifts and long deployments and who supported them every step of the way.

We owe Harold and his wife Lada and daughter Meg a huge Thank You!

Posted by pat
a resident of Los Altos
on Jul 24, 2021 at 7:56 pm

pat is a registered user.

What an amazing person! This is an inspiring story and a wonderful example of what it means to dedicate one's life to serving the community. Enjoy your retirement, Chief Schapelhouman!

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