Facebook was the first company in the country to pay for a full-time beat cop.
And now, firefighters in Menlo Park are now reaping the rewards of working in a Silicon Valley city where the social media giant is headquartered, fueling again a conversation about whether wealthy companies should be "good corporate citizens," or whether this flies in the face of good government.
Facebook gave the the Menlo Park Fire Protection District a total of $300,000, according to Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman.
But it's just now that the firefighters are buying about $90,000 of high-tech thermal imaging cameras to find people trapped inside burning buildings, especially when it’s smoky and dark, he said. The cameras will replace existing equipment that's nearly eight years old. The roughly dozen new Bullard Eclipse LDX model thermal imaging cameras will allow firefighters not only to see better, but to record their efforts, and review that footage for post-incident analysis.
"We're just happy to have this kind of technology," Schapelhouman said. "Had we not had a donation like that I'm not sure we would've bought the most advanced equipment because we always have to balance performance and cost."
Two years ago, Facebook gave the fire district about $150,000 for 25 traffic signals that turn green during a Code 3 call, and two defibrillators located near Facebook headquarters. There’s another $60,000 left over that Schapelhouman said will be spent once his team figures out what’s needed most.
The private money from Facebook to the fire district follows $200,000 over three years given in March 2014 to the Menlo Park police department. The move was unprecedented, Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, the nation’s oldest police research nonprofit in Washington, D.C., said in an interview at the time. But, he added: “This may be the model of the future.”
Critics have brought up concerns that company executives look like they are buying off the public sector, or at least benefitting the neighborhoods where they live and work while poorer communities don’t have those options. They worry about unfair treatment and appearances of conflict of interest.
Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a nonprofit group that aims to keep governments accountable, told NBC Bay Area previously that there is nothing "ethically wrong" with such a donation. But he added he doesn't think it's "good government."
"The notion is that government services are paid for by everyone," Francke said at the time. "This comes awfully close to naming rights. So, what will things be called now, 'Google City Hall?' "
But Schapelhouman discounted the naysayers. He insisted Facebook “doesn’t tell us what to do with the money,” and that as public servant he is a “steward of the money” who is operating in good faith.
“That’s not even accurate,” he said. “It benefits the community, Facebook and fire district. If I can check off all three of those, everyone benefits.”