Outgoing SD fire chief talks response times, roving fire crews and his next career move

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Outgoing SD fire chief talks response times, roving fire crews and his next career move

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Chief Brian Fennessy poses for photos at the SDFD Air Operations Division at Montgomery Field on Friday in San Diego, California. Fennessy is leaving this job for a position in Orange County. (Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Back in 1997, a San Diego firefighter by the name of Brian Fennessy borrowed his buddy’s laptop so that, during down times, he could sit in the back of the station pecking out his big idea: a plan to introduce aerial firefighting to the department.

The idea would take pushing, politicking and creative financing. “Everybody scoffed along the way,” Fennessy said. “I just persisted.”

Eventually San Diego’s bigwigs embraced it and signed on, perhaps spurred by the lack of aircraft during the massive and deadly 2003 Cedar fire, Fennessy said. The department now has two firefighting and rescue helicopters, both capable of flying missions at night and available for agencies throughout the county.

A little less than two decades later, that firefighter became chief of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

And now, after two and a half years at the helm, Fennessy is leaving his post next week to take the top job at Orange County Fire Authority, which covers more than 70 fire stations, 1.7 million residents in 23 cities and the unincorporated areas of the county. (San Diego Fire-Rescue’s jurisdiction includes 50 fire stations and roughly 1.3 million residents.)

It presents a big task for Fennessy, whose firefighting career started in 1978 when he was hired by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, where he served on hotshot and helishot crews.

He made the jump to San Diego Fire-Rescue in 1990, and worked his way up the ranks of a department that now has more than 1,200 staffers, including nearly 970 uniformed firefighters and 168 lifeguards.

On Friday, the now 58-year-old chief reflected on his years with the San Diego agency, his thoughts on its accomplishments and challenges, and his advice for whomever becomes the new chief.

The questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

What was the biggest challenge when you took over the department in 2015?

When I came in, my biggest concern was our communications center. In my view it was not functioning the way it needed to be. It needed to go from a communication center to a command center — meaning putting command officers in there and hiring dispatchers.

Because that is the other piece of the response times. You have us getting the call and getting there getting quickly but the dispatchers have to process the calls quickly. And (the calls) can’t back up (but) they were stacking up. So since then, we’ve got 24-hour supervision by battalion chiefs in there, even hired dispatchers.

We are talking with the county about becoming a regional (communications center). So things have evolved.

Talk about the peak-hour engine concept (which, if implemented, would create a handful of roving fire crews for 12 hours a day) and the hope to add more fire stations.

The peak-hour engine thing, I think, is just going to be amazing. The idea behind it is we are trying to reduce response times.

We take four to six engines every day out of service because they have to do (mandatory, legally required) training. As I sit here today. I bet I have three or four engines or trucks down at our training center.

We know that we have these outages, these fire stations are going to be empty, right? When there’s calls in those neighborhoods, the other engines from a distance have to show up. We are not meeting our response times. Instead of six or seven minutes, maybe it takes them 10 minutes. That’s not good when you call 911.

(By using a roving crew) we just covered six outages every day in the peak period. And the beauty of it is — this is the part I love most — at the end of the day when the freeway on-ramps are congested, that impacts our response times. When these guys are done covering the outages, we stick them in different places throughout known congested areas so that they can respond to accidents, heart attacks, whatever it may be. At the end of the day, they shut their engine down, they go home and so they are home every night.

It’s less expensive. You’re closing gaps, you’re dealing with congestion that we didn’t have 20 years ago without you having to build a station.

Now, you are still going to have to build a station. There’s 10, 11 stations that need to be built. They’ll get built, but they are not going to get built overnight.

You spent most of your career here. Then Orange County came knocking. Why leave now?

I never planned to be sitting here having this conversation. If you would have asked me two months ago, I would have told you you were crazy. I love San Diego. I can help them (Orange County) with some of their challenges, and I plan on being around a long time because if you are going to improve operational culture, that is a multi-year process.

I’ve got enough in me to do that.

What is your advice for the next chief?

Just keep everything going. There is no expectation that you bring new programs, but you’re not limited either. With this mayor and this council, they appreciate innovation and trying to provide better service. For people who have ideas, this is a great climate to come into, because they are willing to do it.

Just keep things going, Chief, and I know you will be successful here for as long as you want to be here.

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Hopefully he quickly quashes the silliness going on between OrCo fire and the sheriff's department over helicopter usage :(



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