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Menlo Park Fire Chief Criticized For Role In PG&E Ad

MENLO PARK (KPIX 5) -- On the heels of report finding fault in part by PG&E in the deadly North Bay fires last October, the utility is now promoting its own fire response with an ad featuring a well-known Bay Area fire expert that has triggered some criticism.

The television commercial shows scenes of Menlo Park firefighters responding to an emergency before it morphs into a pitch for PG&E.

The ad stars Fire Chief Harold Schappelhouman.

The well-known and respected chief, whose storied career includes rescue responses at the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City, is now taking heat for his role.

"Well equipped, smart responders can save lives, and PG&E is a big part of that," the chief is heard saying in the ad. "They need us, we need them. There's nothing that could be more true than that."

The chief defended what he called a long and positive relationship with PG&E field crews, but distanced himself from management policies.

He did say he has one regret regarding the ad.

"I didn't put any parameters around it. Realizing how big it's gotten and how it's being used, that is something I would change going forward," said Schappelhouman.

Menlo Park resident Deborah Sanderson said the ad made her cringe. She felt the timing was bad.

"My initial reaction is, 'Ooh, you're giving credibility to people who don't deserve it,'" said Sanderson. "I must say I am disappointed in him, because I see it more as a PG&E PR plug."

The ads play alongside news reports that Santa Rosa fire investigators believe PG&E lines ignited two small fires the night of the big Tubbs Fire.

Schauppelhouman says he has gotten about a dozen emails critical of his role in the ad.

"I think part of the backlash when it comes to sensitivity is that people in the North Bay feel as if PG&E is responsible for the fires," explained the chief.

The chief says neither he, nor any of his firefighters were paid by PG&E to be in the ads, but taxpayers technically footed the bill because the firefighters were all on duty at the time.

"We didn't pay anybody overtime to come in. We didn't miss any calls," said Schappelhouman.

PG&E defended the ad, releasing a statement that said, "Our customers want to know what we are doing to help prevent and fight fires. These ads help communicate how we work together and train with our first responders to benefit our customers, their families and the communities we serve."

Another resident, Cynthia Roberts, said she thinks the ads are good PR for the city of Menlo Park.

"As long as Menlo Park gets the publicity, that's fine," said Roberts.

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