Some question if fire chief should have done PG&E commercial

Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman in a PG&E commercial.
Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman in a PG&E commercial.

Daily Post Staff Writer

You might not expect to turn on your TV and see your fire chief featured in a PG&E commercial. But residents of East Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park and North Fair Oaks have been watching their fire chief, Harold Schapelhouman, in a one-minute commercial for the utility company.

And about a dozen people have complained to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District about Schapelhouman’s appearance in the commercial because of PG&E’s role in the San Bruno disaster and its possible involvement in last October’s fires in Wine Country.

PG&E has paid more than $2.1 billion in fines and civil penalties over the 2009 San Bruno explosion that killed eight people. The utility company is under investigation in connection with the fires in Sonoma and Napa counties that killed 31 people.

“How can the head of this (fire agency) say he is partners with PG&E and trust them when it has been proven that they caused the terrible fires that have happened,” wrote John Kolski to the Menlo Park City Council, even though the fire district is separate from the city government.

But Schapelhouman said he sees the commercial more like a public service announcement.

“In regards to the utility being held accountable and their potential culpability in recent fire disasters if rumors of their guilt are substantiated, I don’t deal with their corporate leadership, but I’m sure that they will need to answer many difficult questions and perhaps serious legal challenges, if those rumors are true,” Schapelhouman said in a statement about the ad.

PG&E didn’t pay chief or fire district

Neither the fire chief nor the district was paid for the commercial, Schapelhouman said.

“Some people are saying that I’m a shill for PG&E or I have a job lined up with them after I retire,” Schapelhouman said. “I did it because they are one of our critical partners in emergency services… My bill at home did not go down.”

PG&E is often one of the first calls firefighters make when arriving on a scene, Schapelhouman said. In August when a squirrel chewed through a power line, cutting power to 1,700 buildings and trapping people in elevators, it was PG&E that had to do the repair work on the line. Firefighters assisted people trapped in elevators or who needed assistance because of the power outage.

Firefighters and PG&E crews work together

“From gas line breaks to fires involving the meter shut-offs to electrocutions and downed and energized power lines, it is the Fire Service that stands by until PG&E first responders can mitigate, abate or intervene so we can then do our work safely,” Schapelhouman said.

The ad can be seen on most TV channels. It began airing late last year.

Schapelhouman was approached by PG&E in August to do the ad and taped it on Nov. 20 and 21. He said the filming was done with on-duty firefighters. He said emergency response was not affected by filming the ad.

Schapelhouman told PG&E he wanted to talk in the ad about the district and the utility’s partnership to create the district’s training facility on PG&E land along the Bayshore.

Schapelhouman said the filming of the commercial was similar to other public affairs activities of the district, such as when children visit a fire station or fire personnel participate in a community event.

The district has participated in promotional videos for Intel and other companies it partners with for its drones. And PG&E has partnered with Salinas, Auburn and Fresno firefighters to do similar ads for those regions.