Booster club electrocution

News about an electrocution on a high school campus spread fast. Still, the details were conflicting.

Officials were quick to point out the injured men were not contracted to work by the school district. Still, they had set up scaffolding in the school’s football field and had been allowed to work inside of the campus without bother.

I heard the men had been working in Mission Viejo High School had been working for a member of the school’s booster club, and the banner they were trying to hang was for an upcoming tournament.

The issue set up a conflicting dilemma. Though school officials did not sanction the work, the company had been somehow allowed to go into the campus and hang the banner without a problem. Continue reading “Booster club electrocution”

180-day plan to reform OCFA

Fire Chief Keith Richter

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.

To read the rest of my coverage on this topic, click here.

Continue reading “180-day plan to reform OCFA”

Hazmat coverage

I wasn’t sure I had a story, but I was confused enough to begin asking questions.

What followed were more than 15 articles on mandatory hazardous material inspections that were skipped over a span of five years, and more than $1.7 million in refunds that the county’s largest fire agency would have to issue to local businesses.

The Orange County Fire Authority’s Fire Marshal was suspended and later placed on leave. A few months later she suddenly retired as pressure increased on administrators.

Now elected officials are demanding reform and the Fire Chief is developing a plan to change Orange County’s largest fire agency.

Here are my articles on the topic going back to 2012, and how the coverage of the topic developed.

It’s going to be more money

Turns out the $360,000 (or so) of refunds the Orange County Fire Authority was to disburse to local businesses – after finding it didn’t do hundreds of inspections it billed for – is going to be a lot more.

Five times more.

An audit of the agency’s hazardous material inspection program showed the problem actually extended several years back. After reviewing records going back to 2005, officials found they could not find evidence for hundreds of inspections that were billed, meaning they would have to issue about $1.7 million in refunds to hundreds of businesses.

It also suggests problems with fee-based programs in Orange County’s largest fire department could be more serious than officials had officially let on.

I first reported on the missed inspections in Sept. 2012, when officials first considered about $360,000 in refunds. The following February – after the completion of an internal review – I wrote about the Fire Marshal’s suspension, here.

It’s an issue that has required persistent attention. Continue reading “It’s going to be more money”

Fire marshal suspended over inspection mistakes

Covering breaking news means never knowing what my work day will look like, and covering a variety of topics on a tight deadline. It’s one of the things I love about my work.

Unfortunately, the hectic schedule also means a lack of follow-through for some of the stories that I break as a crime and safety reporter. Doing so means using spare minutes and hours between breaking news to contact sources and check documents to follow-up on topics that should be followed up.

It’s a tight schedule, but completely workable.

When I first broke the story that the Orange County Fire Authority skipped about half of the hazardous material inspections it is responsible for, I knew it was a topic that would not be complete after one story. It is important to understand the internal tows inside the agency as it tried to find out what happened.

And although personnel issues inside the agency are difficult to cover in any public agency (particularly in California), I was able to find out one of the disciplinary actions that were taken inside the agency as it conducted an internal investigation. Continue reading “Fire marshal suspended over inspection mistakes”

What happened to the hazmat inspections?

Flames shooting out of a house – or a massive brush fire – come to mind when thinking about covering a fire agency, yet firefighters are responsible for much more than putting out fires. When hazardous material are spilled on a roadway, or a dangerous chemical leaks in a factory, it is firefighters in the hazmat unit that respond in Orange County.

They are also responsible for thousands of inspections every year, including construction projects, smoke detectors, occupancy, and chemical permits.

Those inspections have been one of the main topics I have been covering in the last two weeks in connection with the Orange County Fire Authority, where officials discovered that half of the hazardous material inspections they were responsible for were not done. That may be a cause for concern, but there was more trouble with the agency when it was found the department took in the fees for these inspections, even though no one did them. Continue reading “What happened to the hazmat inspections?”

The end of a 128-year-old tradition

The 128-year-old Santa Ana Fire Department will take its last call on April 19, at 11:59 p.m. When the clock strikes midnight, the department will be no more, and residents will begin to see a new name on the side of fire trucks in the city.

On Friday, the Orange County Fire Authority will take over fire services in the second-largest city in the county.

The decision to bring an end to a fire department that has been around for more than a century was motivated by one of the greatest factors that move public safety decisions: money.

Facing a $30 million deficit, city leaders looked at their options, and that included a scrutiny of the biggest expenses most cities face: police and fire services. At the end of the day, the county’s fire agencies offered to not only hire all of the department’s sworn personnel – a decision that went over extremely well with firefighters worried they would be losing their jobs – but that they could save the city more than $10 million in the first year.

Here is some of the coverage:

Santa Ana may outsource fire fighting services

OCFA offers to hire all Santa Ana firefighters

Of course, look for our coverage this week as the transition goes through.