Skipped Hazmat Inspections

I wasn’t sure there was a story there, but the staff report was enough to make me curious.

The issue was innocuous enough to have been easily ignored, but the fact I didn’t understand it was enough for me to reach for an explanation.

“Find that in accordance with California Government Code Section 66014, the proposed fees do not exceed the cost of providing service,” it read.

Seemed reasonable enough.

“Direct staff to issue refunds to approximately 1,400 businesses for a cumulative total not-to-exceed $360,000 for hazardous materials services billed in excess of services provided.”

So what services were “billed in excess of services provided”?

This was the first headline of my coverage:

Sept. 26, 2012

I realized I had several more questions still unanswered. How was such a mistake made, and what was the oversight that failed and allowed such a mistake to go unnoticed until it was too late?

This issue affected several different aspects of the agency, so I reached out to several of them to get an understanding of what went wrong. Executive management, labor leaders, civilian employees and firefighters on the ground were all affected by the issues that were being reported.

Public records requests, emails, internal memos, and past discussions on the topic also helped me get an education on the topic, and learn how it all developed.

Sept. 27, 2012

Oct. 9, 2012

Oct. 25, 2012

Speaking to officials and sources on the topic I knew that pressure was mounting inside the Fire Agency. I began to hear rumblings that the missed inspections – which officials acknowledged had occurred for a year in 2011-12 – might have gone on longer than that.

I made a request for records that would show past practices in the inspections, and I began to hear of repercussions because of the missed inspections. There were rumors of retaliation against whistle blowers, and pressure was mounting on executive managers.

Officials in the department were considering giving up control of the program and having another county agency handle inspectiosn in the future.

Nov. 14, 2012

Nov. 16, 2012

Feb. 21, 2013

That was the first I’d heard of OCFA executives facing consequences as a result of the findings. A one-week suspension didn’t seem like much, but it would be a few months before harsher consequences fell on the agency.

I was also beginning to pull pieces of the inspection problems, including the fact that issues extended beyond what the Fire Authority had admitted previously, and that they would have to look at giving about five-times the dollar amount in refunds.

Instead of $360,000 in refunds for inspections that were never done, the Fire Authority was actually looking at a $1.7 million hit.

Other issues began to arise as well:

March 26, 2013

June 25, 2013

Sept. 21, 2013

Oct. 1, 2013

Fire Marshal Laura Blaul suddenly retired from her position. Elected officials also began to call into question Fire Chief Keith Richter’s job performance and future in the agency as other issues arose, including firefighters who had tweaked seat belt alarms in several vehicles. That revelation came after a fire captain crashed through the window of an engine in a crash.

Now my reporting has been focused on the planning and actions looking into the future of the Fire Authority.

The board of directors is asking for deep changes in the administration and leadership of the agency.

Oct. 21, 2013

Oct. 23, 2013

Fire Chief Keith Richter

Oct. 25, 2013

 Nov. 22, 2013

After the completion of his job evaluation, Fire Chief Keith Richter sat down with me to discuss his future plans in the Fire Authority, including an 180-plan to reform the agency.

First among his plans: he expects to remain at the helm of the agency.

OCFA chief: 180-day plan to correct problems

Dec. 18, 2013

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