Little problem, people. And – though we may be accused of hyperbole – lives could depend on it.
Car crash? Stroke? Drowning? Overdose? Kitten up a tree, horse in a ditch, neighborhood erupting in flames? In the vast majority of Orange County, the emergency workers racing to the rescue will hail from the Orange County Fire Authority, an independent little government hired by other independent little governments to mitigate tragedy. Indeed, two of every three O.C. residents depend on OCFA for paramedic, fire and other emergency services, from down south in San Juan Capistrano to up north in Buena Park. That’s some 2 million people.
And at OCFA, things have gotten nasty. Women regularly lambast the organization for “toxic masculinity” and deep sexism in its ranks. Firefighters accuse their chief – Brian Fennessy – of hiring his pals as consultants, wasting taxpayer money, dragging his feet on hiring much-needed staffers and other transgressions that could impact public safety.
A recent survey of 900 firefighters by their union, the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, found that just 2% approved of the chief’s job performance.
“I am disheartened to learn the situation is far worse than I had imagined. In fact, the results are terrifying,” union president Todd Baldridge told OCFA’s board in November. “How can Chief Fennessy successfully lead your Orange County firefighters with a 2% approval rating? My membership does not support Chief Fennessy. In fact, we feel betrayed.”
The board then hiked the chief’s pay nearly 18% – or just 9.5%, if you count the annual bonus as salary – from $264,000 with a $20,000 bonus to $311,159 a year.
So, yeah, some folks are really ticked off. But both sides insist that these spats have no impact on the quality of service offered to the public.
Fennessy left the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department after many decades to become OCFA’s new big cheese in 2018. It’s worth noting that he took over from former Chief Jeff Bowman, who abruptly resigned amid tension with upper management. And that Bowman took over from former Chief Keith Richter, who got a “no confidence” vote from firefighters.
We didn’t get to speak directly with Fennessy about the conflict, and the board – elected folks from the cities that contract with OCFA, as well as the county – responded in writing to our questions.
“(O)ver the past year, many documents, budgets, and various other communications have been scrutinized to vet the rumors and allegations put forth in items such as the ‘Performance Survey’ that recently came across your desk,” said the letter from Michele Steggell, mayor of La Palma and chair of the OCFA board, and David John Shawver, mayor of Stanton and former board chair.
“Each time, after all that detailed investigation, we arrived at the exact same conclusion: The Fire Chief’s integrity is sound and, to the best of our knowledge, the allegations made against him or the OCFA proved to be untrue and unfounded.”
The union asserts that Fennessy has hired “friends as consultants who yield little to no benefit to OCFA, for example consultant Bob Roper, Brown Marketing Strategies, and the American Leadership Academy,” and that more than $530,000 in no-bid contracts was spent on Mission Centered Solutions “which was a major failure, resulting in no observable positive change within the organization.”
Our colleague Tony Saavedra is combing through documents, and will let you know what he finds. In the interim, OCFA pointed us to agenda documents from last summer, where procedures for “sole source” and “special procurement” contracts – which don’t go out for competitive bids – were parsed in light of the union’s allegations.
On average, over the past five years, regular old purchases comprised 98.74% of OCFA procurements, while sole source accounted for 0.78% and special procurement accounted for 0.48%, the agency said.
That may or may not be of comfort. Sole source contracts were worth, on average, $333,122, while special procurements were worth $523,958.
OCFA board reps Steggell and Shawver cast a skeptical eye on the utility of the firefighters’ survey itself. While the union is well within its rights to survey its members directly – not using outside professionals with statistical chops who provide anonymity and data-collection transparency – they said that “without those very standard-issue components, the ensuing data cannot be verified as accurate or unbiased, especially without the disclosure of the process.”
From the official perspective, there is no tension among the ranks in the fire stations “that exceeds the common issues that often come up (and are quickly solved) in major agencies such as the OCFA,” said spokesman Matt Olson by email.
That’s precisely the attitude that aggravates Lauren Andrade, a fire captain with years of service at OCFA.
“The thing we’re frustrated about, ultimately, is that the rank and file doesn’t feel like anything we say or do is going to matter,” she said. “It’s like a third of the board is for Fennessy, a third is against him, and a third doesn’t know what the hell to make of it.”
Less than 3% of firefighters at OCFA are women, and Andrade has been instrumental in pushing for basic equity for them – things as simple as restrooms where women can shower after a fire call without having to wait in line with a gaggle of men. The process, which should be relatively simple, has taken years and is still continuing.
It’s effectively 1940 at OCFA, other women have said.
Two high-profile women have sued OCFA since Fennessy took the helm. Trailblazing pilot Desiree Horton, OCFA’s first female helicopter pilot, filed a lawsuit in June, saying she was ignored, undermined, disrespected, disparaged and made to feel as though she was incompetent for being a woman, despite nearly 30 years of experience flying choppers (16 of them with state and federal fire agencies).
Colleen Windsor took the job of spokesperson for OCFA in 2019 and was gone 19 months later, driven out by what she said was a nightmarish pattern of sexist attacks. She made a discrimination complaint to the state and filed suit in October – naming leaders in the union, but not Fennessy himself. “OCFA has a well-documented history of chauvinism and misogyny and has recently been the subject of several suits alleging, as here, gender discrimination,” her suit says. In her lawsuit, Windsor says male co-workers sought to belittle and marginalize her “in an obvious attempt to coerce her to quit her job” by sending unprofessional and incendiary e-mails, making comments about the physical appearance of Windsor and other women and calling her a “(expletive) bitch.”
OCFA denies these allegations.
Officials are committed to fostering and enhancing collaborative relationships, spokesman Olson said by email, which involves regular visits to fire stations, monthly joint labor-management meetings, one-on-one meetings with union leaders, open letters from the chief to all personnel and monthly podcasts and videos where the chief and assistants answer questions sent in from the field.
“As with any labor group and management team, there are times when difficult conversations must be had, but from our perspective, the discourse has been civil as both parties recognize that our preeminent goal aligns: to ensure our employees are equipped to safely serve our communities with the highest level of competence and care,” Olson said.
That’s not quite how it looks from the other side.
Emergency workers are up close and personal with trauma on a regular basis – “Have you ever responded to a child drowning?” Andrade asks – and between the demands of the pandemic, and workers leaving, and not enough hires to replace them, and crushing overtime to backfill shifts (the top OCFA earner made more than $487,000 in 2020, not counting benefits – $193,715 in salary, and $237,569 in overtime), workers are wrung out, exhausted, and dispirited.
“There has been hesitancy to hire because it’s cheaper to use overtime than to do new hires,” Andrade said. “We’ve gotten memos, ‘you need to step up and do more, it’s your duty, you need to be here’ – people are exhausted.”
The agency has made headway on hiring more paramedics, union leader Baldridge said. If he could wave his magic wand, he’d like to see the chief’s behavior change to focus on OCFA’s pressing issues rather than outside ones. Andrade, though, isn’t sanguine. “If any other CEO had a 2% approval rating, they wouldn’t be there,” she said. “Fennessy needs to go. At the end of the day, it starts and ends with the leadership.”