Two Placentia Police lieutenants alleged misconduct by Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) firefighters at the Fire Authority’s board meeting Thursday where top Placentia officials also defended the city’s move to breakaway from the agency and form its own fire department. 

Placentia Police Lt. James McElhinney detailed a June 6 incident when he said an unnamed Fire Authority captain refused to let OCFA paramedics use a Lynch Ambulance vehicle to transport a patient from an assisted care facility in Yorba Linda to St. Jude’s Hospital in Fullerton. He said the Fire Authority  delayed transporting the victim for an unknown amount of time in order to use Fire Authority’s contract ambulance provider. 

The assisted living facility called Lynch, which handles interfacility transports around the county, and the Lynch emergency medical technicians (EMTs) on the scene called OCFA for a paramedic because of the patient’s severe injury. 

“This patient had a bleeding head injury, was determined to need treatment at a trauma center by the Lynch [emergency medical technicians] and by the OCFA medics. This information was shared with the OCFA captain who knowingly and deliberately decided to delay the transportation of a trauma patient,” McElhinney said.  

“There is simply no excuse for this type of dereliction of duty,” McElhinney said. “A request has been made that this type of threat to public safety be investigated by the Orange County Medical Director’s office before someone else becomes another victim of OCFA’’s unprofessional behavior with the City of Placentia exercising their right to terminate services with OCFA.” 

Placentia became the first OC city to break away from the Fire Authority  and form its own fire department when the City Council voted for the move June 4 because of the rising costs of contracting with OCFA. 

“We cannot sustain another 47 percent increase in the next 10 years without seriously compromising our city’s infrastructure and other important services,” Placentia Councilman Craig Green told the board. 

“Since we made the decision to change business models, we have been subjected to the most draconian negativity by fire union personnel I ever could have imagined,” he said. “One could think the era of Jimmy Hoffa has returned.”  

Under the Fire Authority, there’s a firefighter-paramedic on the fire trucks and the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are on the ambulances contracted with OCFA. If a person’s condition is severe enough, a paramedic is required to be on the ambulance because of the higher level of medical care paramedics can give. 

The city will use the private ambulance company Lynch Ambulance to handle emergency paramedic calls instead of fire department personnel. In 2018, medical emergencies accounted for roughly 80 percent of 911 calls in the city and each of the two new fire engines coming to Placentia will be staffed by three full-time firefighters and a reserve firefighter, according to city studies and documents. All of the full-time firefighters will also be a licensed EMTs.

Lynch Ambulance will have two ambulances in the city at all times and staffed by at least four paramedics. 

Yorba Linda Mayor Gene Hernandez, who sits on the OCFA board, said he was concerned about the potential misconduct allegations.  

“I am concerned about some of the conduct of the allegations we’ve had of our personnel … I’m sure our chief’s going to look into that — that is unprofessional, we’re not known for that and we shouldn’t do that,” Hernandez said. 

During the public comment portion when the two Placentia police lieutenants spoke, Dana Point Mayor Joe Muller asked for documentation to review the incidents. 

“That’s a pretty serious allegation that we need to take a look at,” said Muller, chairman of the OCFA board. 

The OCFA is a regional firefighter agency serving 23 cities throughout Orange County and the unincorporated areas. A council member from each member city has a seat on the agency’s Board of Directors, along with two Orange County Supervisors. Placentia no longer has a seat on the board because it exercised its exit clause June 2018. Irvine lost it’s seat on the board last year when it issued a notice to exit the agency because its City Council said Irvine was paying too much to OCFA. Irvine has since renewed its contract with the agency.

The fire authority’s last day contracting with Placentia is June 30, 2020 and the next day, July 1, its own fire department will take over and utilize the two existing firehouses in the city. 

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy put an item on Thursday’s agenda to dispute portions of Placentia City Manager Damien Arrula’s June 4 presentation when he showed studies, expert testimony and other details about the process to form the Placentia Fire and Life Safety Department. His agenda item also asked for future board direction on policy changes resulting from Placentia’s OCFA exit and creation of its own fire department.  

“I’m gravely concerned for the citizens … because they are going to receive a lesser level of service. We provide 36 firefighters to the city of Placentia — it’s going to be reduced to 18 (with Placentia fire department),” Fennessy said. “Listen, I get it. You can’t always afford the level of services … just say that.” 

“We have gone slide by slide … pointed out and identified factual inaccuracies,” Fennessy said of Arrula’s June 4 powerpoint presentation. 

But Arrula submitted a 26-page document including the conduct claims compiled by police officers and staff; six pages disputing Fennessy’s claims on the board’s agenda report and six pages outlining the timeline of Placentia’s efforts to assemble its own fire department. 

There’s also an incident report in the document detailing a traffic accident June 5, a day after the Council vote, when an OCFA firefighter allegedly told a Placentia police officer to take the person’s vitals “since it was now going to be his job.” 

Placentia Police Lt. Brian Perry, who’s also president of the Police Management Association, detailed the traffic accident incident to the board. 

“This type of bantering or bullying is not acceptable behavior and we wish this type of behavior to cease. I would not tolerate this behavior from my membership. I have attached some other incidents for your review at a later time,” Perry said. 

Arrula told the board Placentia was attempting to clarify the situation. 

“We hope that we provided information that clarifies the record,” he said. 

“I’m more than happy to take the time to walk through our proposal, to explain our proposal,” Arrula said. “As a matter of fact, many city managers, including several of your city managers, have asked me for our process and proposal … But to see the behavior and conduct that has been conducted by your staff is deplorable. I don’t know another way to say it.”

The Fire Authority compiled an initial seven-page document June 4 (attachment 2) to dispute Placentia’s information on creating a fire department. 

The union representing the OCFA firefighters, the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, produced an exact copy of the OCFA document June 7, but used the union’s letterhead instead. 

During public comment at the June 18 Placentia City Council meeting, Fennessy said the OCFA is launching an “education” campaign in the city. 

“We are launching a campaign, just letting you know, an education campaign. We’re putting together a task force. We are going to be out in your community, talking to your citizens and educating them,” Fennessy told the Council. “We’re going to serve and protect by educating your community members.” 

Placentia Mayor Rhonda Shader said the task force will lead to fear mongering. 

“I am extremely concerned that this board … would support a campaign that would frighten the people of my city,” Shader told the board. “I understand being disappointed, frustrated and generally critical of our decision. However, to make people in my city to fear for their lives … is not right.” 

Stanton Mayor David Shawver defended Fennessy’s move during board deliberations 

“The day the chief addressed the city of Placentia’s Council, he was still their fire chief,” Shawver said. “I believe he was just doing his sworn duty … the actions he took were what he believed was what was best for Placentia … I think that if you look at it in that light, we have to support the actions that he took that evening because he cared about the residents of that community.” 

Orange County Professional Firefighters Association political director Todd Baldridge questioned some of Placentia’s claims. 

“I wasn’t planning on speaking until I saw the dog and pony show from Placentia show up there,” Baldridge told the board. “They said we provide them three (paramedics), you guys know we provide them four.” 

“I appreciate the police officers standing up and talking about inappropriate issues. They were involved in a pretty serious traffic accident … June 9th. One of their traffic police officers in a marked police unit was traveling code three (when emergency vehicles turn on lights and sirens) to a structure fire, I’m still not sure why, and t-boned another car,” Baldridge said. 

Arrula told Voice of OC it is standard protocol for police to respond to such incidents.

In an interview after the meeting, Green said the board should start seeing the discrepancies once they begin studying all the documents Placentia provided them. 

“I think when they start looking into that stuff, they’ll find out that’s what took place,” Green said of the misconduct allegations.. “Petty politics has no place in public safety — none. You got a guy bleeding out of his head. What if that guy died? It makes no sense, that’s petty stuff.” 

“I appreciate their (OCFA board) answers, they have to talk like that and that’s okay,” Green said. “I didn’t appreciate Chief Fennessy coming in our chambers and dumping on our administrator (Arrula).” 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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