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In Facebook's Hometown, the First Responders Aren't Local

In Facebook’s Hometown, the First Responders Aren’t Local

As tech companies like Facebook and Apple push up real estate values, more non-tech workers, such as firefighters and police officers are forced to find housing that’s sometimes hours away. WSJ’s Georgia Wells reports. Photo: Menlo Park Fire District

The fire department in Menlo Park, Calif., home to Facebook Inc.,
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has an emergency on its hands: how to prevent its firefighters from living hours away.

In an example of a wider trend that is making it harder for Silicon Valley communities to retain critical nontech workers, 15 of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District’s firefighters live at least 100 miles away, compared with one in the 1980s.

As a result, Menlo Park’s fire chief is implementing a plan to get his 110 workers to live closer to work—or provide a backup place to sleep. It would cost the district $440,000 in the next year alone, the fire chief estimates.

“We’re grateful for the thriving economy, but as fire chief, I’m challenged by it,” says fire chief Harold Schapelhouman. “I need to stop my workforce from moving further away.”

The department’s challenge reflects a flip side of the tech boom: Facebook, Google parent Alphabet Inc.
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and other companies have brought thousands of high-paying jobs to Silicon Valley, but that has driven housing costs sharply higher, pushing firefighters, teachers, nurses and other middle-class workers to live far from their jobs. The trend creates difficulties, including worsening traffic and the risk that emergency workers won’t be able to get there in the case of a natural disaster.

One of Menlo Park’s fire captains, who recently retired, commuted from Reno, Nev., a 250-mile journey that takes at least four hours.

The public-sector workers leaving the Bay Area aren’t alone. Americans are moving away from the tech hub faster than they are arriving, according to a report published last month by the Silicon Valley Competitiveness and Innovation Project.

Other expensive regions are trying to maintain workers nearby. The Fire Department of New York awards job applicants who are residents of the city and nearby counties extra points on the firefighter exam, giving preference to them over applicants who live farther away.

The problem usually comes down to housing. South of Menlo Park, in Cupertino, where Apple Inc.
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is based, school-district officials in December said they plan to build more than 200 affordable apartments for teachers.

Menlo Park fire district workers will earn an average $147,000 this year, Mr. Schapelhouman said. But that money doesn’t go far in a region where the median home value is $2 million, up 18% in the past year, according to real-estate website Zillow Group Inc. Home prices have risen dramatically since Facebook moved to Menlo Park five years ago.

Facebook and other companies are grappling with the issue, too. The social network is doling out stipends to employees willing to live close to the office.

Facebook isn’t paying for the fire department’s extra personnel costs, unlike when it agreed a couple of years ago to pay $194,000 annually for a new police officer position in town.

Instead, the fire department’s housing stipend is financed by property taxes. Facebook gave the fire district $150,000 to buy new defibrillators and emergency equipment.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment on the dilemma of emergency workers not being able to afford to live in the area. The company has no future plans to contribute further to the local fire or police departments, he said. Facebook paid an estimated $9.3 million in property taxes in 2015, according to the San Mateo County assessor’s office.

When Mr. Schapelhouman joined the district 35 years ago, most of the department lived in the Menlo Park area. They were discouraged from living outside of a 30-mile radius from the district, which covers the city of Menlo Park as well as Atherton, one of the wealthiest towns in the U.S., and East Palo Alto, a lower-income suburb. For the chiefs who did live far away, the department bought a house in 2007 for them to sleep at during the week.

Two years ago, Mr. Schapelhouman knew the district had a problem when he noticed his firefighters sleeping in reclining chairs in the station lounges. Fire stations have long had beds for workers on duty, but they wanted to sleep onsite the night before their shifts began to avoid morning traffic.

“It’s hard to ignore,” says Mr. Schapelhouman. “In the old days, if I saw someone sleeping in a chair, I would have thought they were getting divorced. Now it’s because they have to travel further to get to work.”

At the end of last year, the fire board for the Menlo Park Fire District decided to provide stipends to its staff of $100 to $2,000 a month, depending on position and commute distance, to live closer to work. Mr. Schapelhouman estimates it will cost the district $20,000 a month.

The stipends accompanied a change in schedules for the firefighters. They now work longer shifts–48 hours straight–and then are off for four days, cutting down on their long commutes.

It is too soon to tell whether Menlo Park’s stipends are compelling firefighters to move closer to the region, Mr. Schapelhouman says. In the meantime, he is making sure plans for station renovations and new construction incorporate extra bedrooms.

Write to Georgia Wells at Georgia.Wells@wsj.com