I sat down with OCFA Fire Chief Keith Richter last week to discuss some of last year’s troubles in the fire agency, as well as his proposals to reform Orange County’s biggest fire department.
Richter faced a tense job review this year, with some of the members of the 25-member board hinting at the need for a possible replacement.
What was supposed to be a one-day closed-door review turned out to be spread across three closed-door meetings in three months.
Though some details of his plan are still being kept close to the chest – such as a possible restructuring of command staff – Richter shared some of his plans for the future.
First among them: He will still be the chief.
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Published: Dec. 18, 2013
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
After a tumultuous year that saw a series of troubles, Fire Chief Keith Richter said he plans to remain at the helm of the county’s largest fire department.
But Richter acknowledged the need for reform in the Orange County Fire Authority, and said he’s given himself 180 days to implement a plan to prevent the kinds of problems he faced this year.
The plan comes after a series of closed-door marathon meetings between Richter and fire authority’s 25-member board of directors. The meetings, to review Richter’s job performance, spanned three months as he faced increasing criticism.
“I look at it as, my job is to try to improve the organization every day I come to work,” Richter said. “When I feel I am not able to do that, I’ll probably not come back to work.”
The past year has been the most turbulent inside OCFA since Richter was appointed chief in August 2009.
The fire authority found it had billed businesses for hazardous-material inspections that were never done, leading to more than $1.7 million in refunds. OCFA then investigated allegations, later found to be unsubstantiated, of retaliation against whistleblowers.
Officials also found that firefighters disconnected seatbelt alarms in several trucks and engines – a discovery that came after a crash that injured an unbuckled fire captain. Administrators then dealt with allegations that current ambulance contractors were invited to a “special” meeting before the opening of bids.
The problems caught the attention of county supervisors, who called on the fire authority to “get it together,” while several members on the OCFA’s 25-member board criticized leadership at the very top.
Labor-union officials and members of the agency’s board called for top-to-bottom changes in the organization, which provides firefighting services to 23 of the county’s 34 cities.
Richter said he’s approached board members with a plan to address accountability, command structure, awareness of issues, communication and change in the agency.
Most of the solutions proposed by Richter involve technological changes in the department – such as an electronic system to list open tasks for battalion chiefs and their crews until they complete them. It would include due dates for inspections, performance evaluations, training and community outreach.
“It’s not the individual employees who were at fault, but the gaps we identified have more to do on whether we put the right systems in place so the team works well together,” Richter said. “If they’re not running the same play, we’re going to have some dropped balls.”
Yet Richter would not rule out making changes at the command level of the agency, saying changes at the executive level of the fire authority were “very possible.”
Board members have contracted with a consulting firm that will review the command structure and accountability.
“We’re looking at all those things,” Richter said.
Fire officials already have begun implementing changes in how the agency runs.
The board of directors last week approved the creation of a human-resources committee that will make recommendations to the rest of the board, a responsibility previously handled by OCFA staff.
The board also hired a labor negotiator to work with the firefighters’ union on an upcoming contract. While seemingly unrelated, the two moves pass some of the responsibilities previously handled by OCFA staff into the hands of elected officials and a contractor who will answer directly to the board.
OCFA staff will still be intricately involved, however, Richter said.
“I don’t think they’re taking responsibility away from us, because we’re still going to be providing assistance for those consultants,” he said. “It’s not unusual for a large or small company to bring in fresh eyes.”
Steven Weinberg, board chairman, said the committee and the labor contractor were discussed by Richter, the vice chairman and himself to “improve transparency and organization” in OCFA.
Richter said he also wants to look at leadership within the agency and provide training that would help prepare firefighters for leadership positions.
In the past four years, he points out, the agency has experienced several retirements. As a result, 70 percent of administrators in key positions have four years or less in their current job.
“It doesn’t mean they’re newbies,” he said. “Certainly, they have experience and they are qualified in their position, but they haven’t been in that chair for very long and certainly have a learning curve.”
As an at-will employee, Richter or the board can decide to end his contract with a 60-day notice. So far, board members have expressed in public a desire to work with Richter to implement changes.
“I’m very positive that the chief is doing the right things,” Weinberg said.
Richter said he plans to stay put.
“The board has never given me a goal we haven’t met,” he said.
He points to a study done in the past year that looked at cities that were overtaxed for fire services and are now due refunds.
“It’s a 25-year-old issue,” he said. “We solved it. We’re very proud of that.”
He also said the agency addressed a $17 million budget gap and other financial liabilities.
“What we haven’t done well, I take full responsibility of,” he said. “Had I to do it over again, I hope I would have been more aware and more in tune to a gap that caused such a serious failure.”
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