The Orange County Fire Authority is wrestling with some big issues right now, including a drop in staffing, stalled contract negotiations, along with an ever expanding wildfire season and a revolving door of fire chiefs over the past decade.
The authority is also facing a lawsuit from their former spokesperson Colleen Windsor, alleging gender discrimination by OCFA staff members and that the HR department ignored her concerns.
To read the entirety of the lawsuit’s claims, click here.
Members of the public have also repeatedly spoken up at the board meetings to ask about the lack of women in the agency’s ranks and other reports of gender discrimination.
All these issues are putting a lot of focus on the agency’s 25 executive board members.
And there’s mounting concerns they’re not paying attention to what’s in front of them.
The situation at the fire agency is so tense that after months of trying to get the board involved with contract negotiations, OCFA first responders and other union members have launched a tour of city councils throughout Orange County, calling out the board members for not engaging.
“We made a commitment…to make sure you were aware of the dysfunction of the (OCFA) board and its members,” said Todd Baldridge, union president of firefighters union Local 3631, at the Yorba Linda City Council’s August 16 meeting, the most recent city visited on the tour.
The 25 person board is the largest of its kind in Orange County, with a city council member from each of the 23 cities serviced by the fire authority and two representatives from the county board of supervisors.
A Voice of OC review of all the 2022 board meeting minutes, which were approved by the board, found there have been zero meetings this year where the entire board showed up, and less than a third of the members speak aside from voting during most meetings.
Most board members also don’t come in person for the meetings, calling in from home and often leaving their screens blacked out so the public can’t see their faces during the meeting.
The vast majority of board members didn’t speak during the meetings according to the minutes, and the only meetings where a majority of the board commented came during their general comments unrelated to any action items, which was mostly spent praising first responders.
That’s led to a rising tide of complaints that board members aren’t focused on the task at hand.
“When you look at the board, they’re black,” Baldridge said. “I don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re sure as hell not paying attention.”
Anthony Kuo, vice chair of the fire authority’s board and an Irvine City Councilman, agreed there are absolutely disengaged board members in an interview with Voice of OC.
“I think there are some board members who have been participating from home who are very engaged, and then there are some you have to call out their name a few times to see if they’re understanding the conversation,” Kuo said.
Kuo also said many of the board members aren’t informed enough by staff on the impact of the decisions they’re making because of how high the board’s turnover is, something he’s trying to fix as vice chair.
“These are big decisions, this isn’t ‘Am I going to Burger king or McDonalds?’ this is voting on a multi million dollar contract,” Kuo said. “No politician wants to admit to not knowing something…with every election cycle you could have a third of the board brand new.”
“There’s such a learning curve.”
The board members also frequently swap in and out, with 10 of the board members having two years or less of experience and only eight board members have more than five years’ experience.
Multiple board members also repeatedly missed meetings, with county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and Yorba Linda City Councilman Gene Hernandez topping the list at four absences apiece of the seven meetings reviewed by Voice of OC.
The tour is being led by the Orange County Employees Association, which represents around 250 non sworn fire and emergency personnel, and Local 3631 Orange County Professional Firefighters, which represents roughly 1,100 first responders employed by OCFA.
Their primary ask is for the member cities to have their representative on the board vote in favor of a cost of living wage increase.
According to union staff, the firefighters union has been offered no raise, while the OCEA employees have been offered a 1.25% raise over the next two years, which staff say is blunting the agency’s ability to recruit.
“They’re your employees, and you have an obligation to them,” said Charles Barfield, OCEA’s general manager, at the board’s April 28 meeting. “Give your negotiator specific authority that will result in a fair contract.”
Union members have shown up multiple times at those meetings to share the conditions they’re working under, saying that multiple departments are understaffed.
According to Baldridge, in their last fire academy, the agency was hoping to recruit 50 firefighters to help boost their staffing levels that have dropped to the point that firefighters are being regularly forced to pick up extra shifts.
They got 19 firefighters, two of which quit within the first month to return to their old fire departments in the Inland Empire that were offering better pay and benefits, he said.
With that lack of new personnel, it’s putting stress on the existing staff, with many reporting they’re being forced to work dozens of hours of extra shifts against their will.
Kuo said that Fire Chief Brian Fennessy and other senior staff have said the board has two options: grant the requested raises, or buy two new helicopters, which would cost around $80-$90 million according to Kuo.
But Kuo said that staff haven’t explored all the options for purchasing those helicopters, and said he thinks there’s a way to both give firefighters a raise and get the helicopters.
“I think that we need to give them raises, and I think what we haven’t done is explore how we’re going to pay for the helicopters,” Kuo said. “I think there are a lot of creative things we can do.”
So far, staff from both unions have visited the cities of Yorba Linda, Laguna Niguel, Garden Grove and Stanton, calling on the city councils to stand with them and approve a new raise.
In every city they visited, they got the same response: a polite thank you and no further discussion.
“We’re pulling for you,” said Garden Grove Mayor Steven Jones.
“I’d like to thank our firefighters for all you do for our community,” said Laguna Niguel Mayor Elaine Genneway, whose city lost 10 homes during the Coastal Fire earlier this year. “It’s sincerely appreciated.”
“When I hear about the 100 hour work weeks and what you guys are going through, it strikes a chord, no doubt about that,” said Yorba Linda Mayor Carlos Rodriguez, who shared about his experience evacuating in the 2020 Blue Ridge Fire. “I do remain optimistic these issues will be resolved…we hear you loud and clear.”
Voice of OC was not able to review the council’s discussion in Stanton because the city does not post recordings of their city council meetings.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.