The Orange County Fire Authority hired a veteran leader Thursday as an interim chief to direct the agency out of a morass of controversies while a permanent chief is recruited.
Jeffrey R. Bowman was unanimously selected by the Fire Authority’s board of directors for a contract that is expected to extend into next year.
Fire Authority spokesman Mike Petro declined Friday to reveal the cost of the contract, saying that would be divulged Tuesday. Sources say Bowman was seeking about $25,000 a month plus a housing allowance; he lives near Escondido in San Diego County.
Bowman’s selection came the day before the retirement date of Keith B. Richter, the agency’s fire chief for the last five years. Richter announced his retirement in June after a highly critical management audit noted accountability was “lacking at all levels” of the Fire Authority.
A firefighter with 34 years experience, Bowman was fire chief in Anaheim for 16 years until 2002 when he left to take the top job at the San Diego Fire Department. He served in San Diego for four years, but left after a high-profile battle with city leaders over department resources.
Bowman also has served as interim fire chief for Oceanside, and consulted with other departments nationally and in Canada.
In a statement released late Thursday night, Al Murray, chairman of the Fire Authority’s board, said: “OCFA is fortunate to have Chief Bowman aboard to help guide the Authority though the next phase of its growth.
“Chief Bowman’s breadth of experience, working his way up through the ranks and serving as a fire chief for many years will be instrumental as we search for OCFA’s next chief.”
The advertisement for applicants for the Fire Authority’s permanent fire chief job lists the salary in the $250,000 range, with applications to be submitted by Oct. 10. Some board members are seeking a decision on a candidate on Dec. 4.
In the press statement, Bowman said: “I’d like to thank the OCFA Board for showing confidence in me as we work together through the OCFA fire chief transition.
“I am committed to partnering with management, staff, labor and the board to not only facilitate a smooth transition, but return to a positive focus on the great work of the men and women of OCFA in fighting fires, saving lives and educating the public on being fire safe.”
Bowman has the support of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, which has been intensely critical of Richter.
“Chief Bowman has proven himself on the front lines of American fire service again and again,” said Joe Kerr, a spokesman for the union. “We welcome him to OCFA, and look forward to working with him.”
Richter was absent from the Fire Authority’s board meeting Thursday, where Bowman’s appointment was announced after a closed session.
Kerr said he had heard Richter was so embittered that he rejected the Fire Authority’s offer to let him keep his badge, a tradition for officers of extended service; saying he didn’t want anything to remind him of the agency.
Bowman is taking over Orange County’s largest fire/rescue service with 1,300 staff in 71 fire stations in 23 partner cities — which collectively govern the independent Fire Authority.
Bowman is widely known in firefighting circles as a taskmaster who speaks bluntly about requirements and the realities of rescue services.
In San Diego, he retired after the municipal government declined to expand its firefighting capability following the massive 2003 wildfires that killed 15 people [including a firefighter] and destroyed 2,200 homes.
He spoke strongly of the need to add fire stations and staff to combat fires that rapidly can move from wild lands into suburbs — a threat that Orange County also faces.
In Orange County, Bowman will seek to address issues raised in May by a Management Partners Inc. of Costa Mesa audit that found ineffective executives, low morale system wide, and discipline problems.
Additionally, reports by the Voice of OC showed the Fire Service issues run deep — with fundamental failures in the chain of command, to questionable handling of alleged alcohol, drug, and sex offenses.
And in July, the state Fair Political Practices Commission also opened an inquiry to determine if a formal investigation is required on conflict of interest issues associated with a consultant contract, after a Voice of OC article.
In that case, the Fire Authority contracted for $162,000 with Emergency Services Consulting International [ESCI] of Oregon for a report released last February calling for radically altering how rescue services should be provided.
But a Fire Authority division chief integrally involved in that study initially didn’t disclose on state-required economic interest forms his prior consulting for ESCI on a $10,000 contract in Colorado.
Richter was said to have largely cleared out his office by Monday, then made the rounds thanking staff for their service.
In an email to Fire Authority staff dated Aug. 21, Richter wrote of the privilege and opportunity of leading the agency facing many challenges.
“While there are still issues that need solving, I am extremely proud of the remarkable achievements earned through your hard work over these past years,” Richter wrote.
“Critics will likely continue to focus on what they perceive to be wrong with the OCFA, I can only encourage you to focus on what is right with it. In reality, there are many more good things than bad.”
Looking to the future, Richter also wrote: “I believe the fire service is changing and both the fire chief and the firefighter need to adapt to those changes, or face the unintended consequences of our inaction.”
Richter couldn’t be reached for comment; he hasn’t responded to requests for comment for months. He reportedly is moving to the Tahoe area.
His pension for his Orange County service couldn’t be determined. After his retirement as fire chief of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District in Northern California, Transparency California says he was eligible in 2009 for a $86,200 annual pension after his 11 years service there.
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at [email protected]