OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy tapped as international Fire Chief of the Year for leadership, innovation


Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennesy — who oversees 78 stations serving nearly 2 million residents in 23 municipalities and unincorporated areas — has been noted for several accomplishments since his arrival to the agency in 2018.

He partnered with California lawmakers in 2019 to create a statewide pilot program expanding a Fire Integrated Real-time Intelligence System (FIRIS) that uses technology to survey fires and other disasters and deliver real-time updates to crews on the ground.

Two years later, Fennessy helped broker an agreement with Southern California Edison to fund a fleet of helitankers and intelligence helicopters capable of fighting fires at night. The Quick Reaction Force program is now used in Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties and prevents 95% of blazes from spreading beyond 10 acres.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy at a 9/11 remembrance ceremony outside the agency's Irvine headquarters.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy at a 9/11 remembrance ceremony outside the agency’s Irvine headquarters.

(Courtesy of the Orange County Fire Authority)

On his watch, the agency has launched an annual Girls Empowerment Camp to encourage young women to consider careers in fire service, created and filled positions designed to promote diversity and behavioral health and wellness, begun the process of purchasing two new FIREHAWK helicopters and received accreditation for its Firefighter Recruit Academy.

For him, the agency’s recent successes are not solely due to his leadership, but to the team of individuals who work to bring big ideas and visions to life.

“Nobody does it by themselves,” the 64-year-old San Clemente father of three said Wednesday. “I’ve got a really good team of firefighters and others who go out and do this stuff — it’s been a really good team effort.”

And while Fennessy doesn’t do what he does for the accolades, they’ve found him nevertheless.

He was on Tuesday named by the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs as 2023 Fire Chief of the Year in a special ceremony celebrating the organization’s 150th anniversary.

IAFC's Fire Chief of the Year award, shaped like an eagle in flight.

The International Assn. of Fire Chief’s annual Fire Chief of the Year award recognizes department leaders’ innovation, integrity, public service and contributions to the fire service.

(Courtesy of the Orange County Fire Authority)

Established in 1996, the award recognizes department leaders who’ve shown exemplary contributions to the fire service through innovation, integrity and public service.

The Orange County chief is just the third from California to be honored with the international distinction, selected from more than 25 finalists who were all nominated from among the association’s membership of some 12,000 career and volunteer chiefs and emergency services managers.

“We truly look for someone who displays not only excellence in leadership as a fire chief but someone who’s involved in their community and is a well-rounded executive that gives back just as much to the profession,” said IAFC Chief Executive Rob Brown, who’s known Fennessy for the last 11 years.

“It was no surprise to me he won. For his entire career he’s really worked in his community to do the best he can for fire protection,” Brown said. “He also works with us on a national stage to advance fire technology.”

Fennessy — who began his fire career in 1978 working as a member of a hotshot crew in the Angeles, Los Padres and Sequoia national forests and logged 25 years with San Diego Fire-Rescue Department before being promoted to chief in 2015 — said he was surprised when Brown called him up to share the news.

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy speaks to a crowd near a helicopter.

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy speaks during a July 2019 event at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos promoting the agency’s Quick Reaction Force Program. Fennessy was named IAFC’s Fire Chief of the Year for 2023.

(Courtesy of the Orange County Fire Authority)

“I was half stunned and obviously very humbled just to be nominated,” he said Wednesday. “My phone has been blowing up with calls and emails. My wife said, ‘This is like you getting an Emmy or Oscar or something.’ I’m still kind of in shock, to be honest.”

He came to Orange County in April 2018 seeking a challenge and was tested four months later when the 23,000-acre Holy fire ignited in Trabuco Canyon and ripped through the Cleveland National Forest, destroying 18 buildings.

As California’s fire season continued to lengthen, making wildfires more common occurrences, Fennessy sought to bring the technological advancements he’d seen employed in San Diego to the Orange County agency.

Chief Brian Fennessy, third from left, poses with his IAFC Chief of the Year Award.

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy, third from left, poses Wednesday with his IAFC Chief of the Year Award. Also pictured: IAFC President Donna Black, from left, volunteer Chief of the Year Thomas Bell and Pierce Manufacturing President Bob Schulz.

(Courtesy of IAFC)

He’s also focused on creating a mission-driven culture of service among the ranks of the department’s 1,500-plus employees, working with the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn. to address physical and mental health matters, working conditions and opportunities for advancement.

“It’s no longer just running 911 calls, although we still do that and that’s an important part of our job,” he said. “It’s now about how we take care of our members and families and encourage people in a diverse workforce. It takes a lot of effort, but it’s worth it.”

Mark Niemeyer, IAFC member and chief of the Boise Fire Department, said he personally nominated Fennessy as Fire Chief of the Year for his strong leadership and innovative mind. The nomination was unanimously approved by the organization’s board.

“He is a leader with high character and high values. In today’s world that’s fairly hard to come by,” Niemeyer said. “Beyond that, he is very much an innovator — he’s always looking forward. He is somebody I greatly respect.”


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