San Diego fire chief leaving for job in Orange County

San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Brian Fennessy is leaving the job after two-and-a-half years for a position leading the Orange County Fire Authority.

He will be replaced on an interim basis by Kevin Ester, who has been serving as assistant chief of business operations.

The city plans to launch an open recruitment next week for a permanent replacement for Fennessy, whose last day will be April 13.

Fennessy, 58, was the driving force behind upgrading the city’s helicopter program, which now has two firefighting and rescue helicopters with night-flying capability that are available for water drops and rescues throughout the county.

He has also focused on building new fire stations, reducing emergency response times and boosting the diversity of new firefighters.

“Chief Fennessy has been an outstanding leader of our Fire-Rescue Department and we wish him well as he takes on this great opportunity,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a news release.

Fennessy and Faulconer said the department is in good hands with Ester.

"He's the right person for the job," Fennessy said.

Fennessy, who joined the department in 1990 and was appointed chief in September 2015, said he is looking forward to his new position.

“My family and I view this next chapter in our lives as an outstanding opportunity for personal and professional growth,” he said in the city news release.

Fennessy said he didn’t seek the job in Orange County.

"I was actually approached multiple times," he said.

His pay appears likely to increase sharply. His base salary as San Diego’s fire chief is $180,000. The salary of the previous chief in Orange County was $245,000.

Fennessy’s new salary hasn’t been disclosed because his hiring won’t be official until the fire protection board in Orange County approves it next week.

Fennessy will take over a department in some turmoil. The Orange County Fire Authority is in an escalating battle with the Orange County Sheriff's Department over helicopter jurisdiction.

Fennessy said he wasn’t hired specifically to solve those problems, but added that he’s confident he can help.

"They're solvable," he said. "This is just one of those situations where relationships need to be built and they need to get better."

Ester, 53, has been with the department for nearly 33 years, climbing the ranks as a firefighter, engineer, captain, battalion chief and deputy chief. He has worked a wide range of assignments across the city and in several administrative positions, including the department’s logistics division.

In 2016, Ester became assistant chief of business operations where he oversaw community risk reduction, the emergency command and data center, professional standards and human resources.

“I am humbled and honored to be given this opportunity to lead the men and women of our Fire-Rescue Department,” Ester said in the city news release. “We have a workforce that gives their all in service to the citizens of our city, and have every day since 1989.”

Ester said at a news conference on Thursday morning that he is a candidate to become Fennessy’s permanent replacement.

His annual salary will increase from $157,000 to $180,000 when he takes over as interim chief.

david.garrick@sduniontribune.com (619) 269-8906 Twitter:@UTDavidGarrick

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