Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Menlo Park Fire District Chief Harold Schapelhouman is back to work after suffering from a tragic accident.
Harold Schapelhouman has spent his life dedicated to public service — he traveled to New York to assist in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was deployed to assist after Hurricane Katrina and helped dig through the rubble of the Oklahoma City bombings.
And even after suffering a debilitating accident which left him paralyzed eight months ago, he’s thankful to be back at work as chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
“I’ve always been interested in what people do in a tight spot, what they’ll do to survive,” Schapelhouman said. “In this business, you see a lot of people who have bad days. Then I had my own.”
Schapelhouman, 52, has been a firefighter for 33 years and chief since 2007. In May 2013, he broke his back after falling 15 feet from a ladder while trimming trees at his San Jose home causing major spinal cord damage that left him paralyzed.
His injuries are considered incomplete and, while continuing rehab, he’s regained the full use of his right arm and partial use of his left arm. His dedicated progress allowed him to return to work part time at the beginning of January, Schapelhouman said.
“There’s a chance I can get better. I’m pretty optimistic, but always realistic. But you have to work really hard and that’s what I’ve been doing,” Schapelhouman said.
He was always attracted to the valor of being a firefighter and the overarching call of helping people; it’s a 100-year-old organization of people dedicated to emergency preparedness and response, Schapelhouman said. He helped establish one of the state’s urban search and rescue task forces that took him to the front lines of some of the country’s most poignant disasters, Schapelhouman said.
Having never been on the receiving end of emergency assistance, his accident heightened his gratitude for what first responders and doctors do, Schapelhouman said.
“I have an appreciation of what goes on after a call,” Schapelhouman said. “I was always part of the help, but never a customer.”
He remains upbeat and even comical at times. He recognizes the irony of “what did me in was a ladder,” and chuckles how he was found with the power cutter still in his hand because he knew better than to ever drop a tool. He’s not adverse to risk but he’s always been very careful, so when he awoke after falling he said he could tell he was in trouble.
“Between knowing something just happened and I can’t move, laying in a puddle of my own blood, I knew something was really wrong,” Schapelhouman said.
His professional training served him during his accident because his neighbor was first on the scene and he guided his neighbor through what to do and what not to do, Schapelhouman said.
He was eager to get back to work and set a goal of returning in four months. He said he recognizes now that wasn’t realistic. At times, he may have pushed himself too hard and, while in rehab in June, he had a setback and returned to the hospital for another surgery, Schapelhouman said.
Many said he wouldn’t go back to work for at least a year but, with steadfast determination, he’s made tremendous progress and is grateful to be back serving the community, Schapelhouman said.
He’s a hands-on jack-of-all-trades who’s worked in construction, helped remodel his home and worked on his own cars. He’s comfortable on a roof and well versed in climbing ladders, Schapelhouman said. Some things have changed since his accident, he’s had to get used to directing and being courteous when people try to help him do things he wants to relearn on his own. However, he remains dedicated to his job and the success of the department, Schapelhouman said.
The fire department is a “24-7, 365 shop” that never rests and, as was his job before the accident, he makes sure it’s a well-oiled machine on which the public can depend, Schapelhouman said.
“What do we need to do here so people don’t need to think twice when they call 911? So they know someone will be there?” Schapelhouman said. “It’s the part that a lot of people don’t see and don’t need to see when they call 911. The biggest part is keeping it all running.”
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District has pulled through the recession and has money for capital improvements. It will be rebuilding its East Palo Alto station and he’s integrating new technologies into the department. Schapelhouman said he’s now more humble but continues with and enjoys the same work he was responsible for before his accident.
“It’s all about partnership. The strength is in the collaboration, the finesse of working together,” Schapelhouman said.
He’s probably the only person in fire service in a wheelchair but, with his administrative duties as chief, it’s really about what you know and how well you do it, Schapelhouman said.
His network of supporters has grown; his neighbors, coworkers, San Jose firefighters, doctors and his wife and daughter have encouraged him throughout his ongoing recovery, Schapelhouman said. He said he continues to enjoy his service work, he’s now able to drive himself with a special vehicle and works hard to become more independent. And he said he’ll continue to fight.
“Being a firefighter, you just inherently deal with difficult situations and part of it is just digging deep within yourself,” Schapelhouman said. “You can’t focus on the things you can’t do, focus on the things you can do. In some way have a purpose, because people that don’t have a purpose wither away.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106