Placentia will be the first city in Orange County to break away from the OC Fire Authority and use its own fire department, ending a year-long battle against the Authority’s chief and various firefighter unions. 

The move is expected to save Placentia millions of dollars as OCFA’s cost has increased over the years, while the city has had to cut police and other department spending, city documents show

One of the core issues OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy, firefighter unions and fire associations have with Placentia’s fire department is its use of private paramedics to transport patients to hospitals, instead of the firefighter-paramedic set-up that all OC fire departments use. They also raised concerns that the Placentia fire department will lack the decades of institutional experience OCFA has. 

Under OCFA’s procedures, the firefighter arrives on the firetruck, but then rides on the contracted private ambulance with the patient to the hospital, essentially taking the engine offline during that time. 

But OCFA has the resources to continue providing emergency services, fire union officials contend. 

“The single role paramedic as opposed to the firefighter paramedic model is also far inferior because they cannot go into burning buildings, into incidents that are dangerous for life and health,” said retired OCFA Fire Captain Joe Kerr, who’s now a consultant for the union. 

Placenita will instead use private ambulances and the company’s paramedics to handle emergency medical calls, leaving its engines free. The new fire department is slated to take over emergency services July 1, a year after City Councilmembers voted to breakaway from OCFA.

Kerr, Fennessy and the OCFA firefighters contend that Placentia will lack enough firefighters to adequately address a typical house fire and will have to rely on nearby Anaheim, Brea and Fullerton fire departments. 

“Beginning July 1, Placentia [Fire and Life Safety Department] will be the only fire agency in Orange County that cannot reciprocate type and number of resources necessary to be considered reciprocal as understood by fire agencies statewide,” Fennessy wrote in a letter laying out OCFA’s concerns. 

Read Fennessy’s letter here. 

Kerr also echoed what Fennessy said. 

“The city of Placentia’s fire department, the new agency, represents the first time any Orange County agency has such an inferior-staffed department. They are not able to offer like for like reciprocity,” said Kerr, adding the surrounding fire departments will “subsidize their new fie department.”  

Placentia City Manager Damien Arrula, in a letter to a statewide organization, addressed the concerns. 

“They would be right to a certain degree – OCFA has extensive resources. Yet, despite its vast resources, OCFA annually receives far more aid from other agencies than it provides to them, and medical aid calls are far and away the norm for fire departments, with structure fires representing a much smaller number of their calls, in Placentia’s case, less than 1%,” Arrula wrote. 

He also noted that Fennessy stonewalled aid negotiations with the city and OCFA takes from other jurisdictions more than it receives. 

“Such correspondence indicates that Anaheim, Fullerton, and Brea all respond into Yorba Linda (OCFA) and Placentia (currently OCFA) at a much higher rate than OCFA does within their communities. Moreover, while OCFA has thus far been unwilling to provide the data, a separate source demonstrates that Placentia Engines 34 and 35 also respond into Yorba Linda at a much higher rate than it receives assistance from resources located within Yorba Linda. This data can be provided upon request,” Arrula stated in the letter. 

The California Fire Chiefs Association also sent a January letter to the city claiming there would be no oversight of the paramedics, the city’s deployment plans are inconsistent with industry standards and the city would have to rely on surrounding agencies.

“These decisions and plans put firefighters and the citizens they serve in greater danger, a risk burden that will be borne by neighboring departments who are being asked to deliver mutual aid support to Placentia to meet industry-standard response levels. This model is contrary to the California Disaster Act and our statewide mutual aid compacts and is not financially sustainable,” wrote association president Edmond Rodriguez. 

Read the Fire Chiefs Association Letter here.  

Arrula, who spearheaded the city’s fire department effort, fired back with a February letter, refuting each claim raised by the chiefs association. 

“Let me state at the outset that the Placentia City Council and staff are extremely bothered by the manner and content of your letters because of the significant number of false and defamatory statements contained therein. Not only are these statements highly troubling to the City, but they likely have crossed the line into legally actionable false statements that should be retracted,” Arrula wrote. 

Read Arrula’s response here. 

“It is unclear to our City why the CFCA executive board has chosen to rush forward to make so many false statements, without even having attempted once to contact us to seek a clarification of what the City’s actual plans are for establishing its own local fire Department,” Arrula stated in the letter. 

When Placentia City Councilmembers voted to end the city’s contract with OCFA and form its own fire department last June, Arrula laid out the details in a presentation consisting of over 100 PowerPoint slides

Placentia officials have also faced some trouble hiring firefighters also. 

The California Professional Firefighters Association, the statewide umbrella union, sent a December memo to their members, urging them not to apply to Placentia’s fire department.

“In solidarity with Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, Local 3631, CPF asks that you DO NOT APPLY to Placentia Fire Department for any position,” reads an association memo. 

The firefighter association criticized Placentia for not having a firefighter union and railed against the lack of pensions and said the department proposes a health risk. 

“We strongly believe their action is the first step down the road of ending secure pensions for all firefighters and all public workers,” reads the memo. “And we believe the staffing proposal as outlined poses a clear and present health and safety risk to any individual who might be hired to work for the proposed Placentia fire department.” 

A December memo from the California Fire Chiefs Association echoing the same concerns was sent to its members. 

The latest fight between the city and OCFA happened this past Tuesday. 

Placentia’s incoming fire department next month will take over fire and emergency medical services for an unincorporated island within the city, despite objections from the Orange County Fire Authority. 

Last Tuesday saw a two-part approval process: a vote from Placentia City Councilmembers at a special morning meeting and a vote by OC Supervisors in the afternoon for Placentia’s incoming fire department to take over the unincorporated island, known as Hamer Island. 

Arrula said OCFA fought the efforts by submitting proposals to the county that would have charged the city for responding to 911 calls from Hamer Island. 

And OCFA wanted Placentia to pay workers compensation for a fire authority employee if they were injured while responding to a Hamer Island call — an unprecedented move, Arrula said. 

“Charging the city a fee for every aid request — out of 37 agencies serving out of 5 counties, the city could not find a single example,” Arrula said during last Tuesday’s meeting. “They are not negotiating in good faith … they are only interested in fire unions and trying to diminish our ability to be successful.”

Throughout Placentia’s efforts to create its own fire department, OCFA and the unions claimed city firefighters would use more resources of surrounding jurisdictions than it provides. 

Arrula disputed the claim and said a majority of calls are medical emergencies and not large fires. 

“Ironically, all the data that we have … demonstrates that OCFA’s deployment model utilizes automatic aide much more than it deployed automatic aide to cities,” Arrula said. 

For example, Arrula said, Fullerton firefighters helped OCFA in 69 percent of calls, while the fire authority helped Fullerton Fire Department in 31 percent of calls last year. 

Arrula also said Fennessy declined to meet with him and County officials about the Hamer Island issue. 

“Myself and the County CEO Frank Kim have attempted to meet with Chief (Brian) Fennessy to discuss mutual aid concerns … the discussions are not going well with respect to how OCFA is proposing the city provide services.”

City Councilman Craig Green said the fire authority has refused agreements with the city for Hamer Island emergency services, potentially extending response time. 

“Which I think is incredible on his part, it appears that Chief Fennessy is okay with a two to eight minute delay. Well, I cannot in good conscience accept that delay,” Green said at Tuesday’s Council meeting. 

The delay was caused by OCFA’s proposal that Placentia firefighters and paramedics wait until a fire authority truck was on-scene until they transported a patient to the hospital. 

One of Placentia’s firehouses is only a quarter mile from Hamer Island, considerably closer than OCFA. 

“And I just think this is egregious and abusive what he’s doing,” Green said. 

Fennessy’s proposed deployment model drew concern from Supervisor Doug Chaffee. Placentia is part of his supervisorial district. 

“We understand that OCFA proposed that Placentia emergency personnel only provide an initial response to service requests in Hamer Island followed by a secondary response from OCFA,” Chaffee wrote in a June 17 letter. 

He sent the letter to his Supervisor colleagues and the OCFA Board of Directors. 

“I am deeply concerned about the risks of delay in patient care and transport posed by OCFA’s proposal,” Chaffee wrote. 

Arrula told Placentia Councilmembers that Fennessy backed off that proposal. 

“OCFA has now since indicated if it’s an [emergency medical] call and people need to be transported, OK, Placentia can go ahead and transport that,” Arrula said. 

At Placentia’s June 2019 meeting, when City Councilmembers voted to break away from OCFA, numerous fire authority employees and firefighters showed up and claimed residents would be less safe. They also accused Placentia of using volunteer firefighters.

The city is using paid, professional firefighters, headed up by a Chief John Van Gieson, who has over 33 years of experience in the field. 

The city will use the private ambulance company Lynch Ambulance for paramedics to transport injured patients, instead of a firefighter paramedic who rides with the patient on the ambulance, like OCFA and other OC fire departments.  

Medical emergencies account for the majority 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. All of the full-time firefighters will also be licensed emergency medical technicians.

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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