At Whittier Christian High School, O.C. native Rusty Coffelt served as freshman and sophomore class president and, as a senior, student body president.
He also made the all-CIF team as quarterback of the Heralds football squad.
Some people, it seems, are born to lead.
So perhaps it came as no surprise when Coffelt’s current boss, Anaheim Fire & Rescue Chief Randy Bruegman, in February tapped him to be the agency’s new deputy chief/fire marshal, Community Risk Reduction Division.
Coffelt’s appointment, as well as a handful of others announced at the same time by the agency, follows the retirement in December 2015 of Jeff Lutz (click here to read story), who served in the position of AF&R fire marshal for 12 years.
During a recent interview at Station 9 in Anaheim Hills, Coffelt talked about his priorities as the new leader of the Community Risk Reduction Division, which includes four main sections: life safety and fire inspections, community outreach and education, hazardous materials inspections, and reporting and engineering, including pre-development consultation and plan checks.
“My role is to work with our management team to assess what our department needs are now and where they need to be to meet the needs of the community,” said Coffelt, a 28-year AF&R veteran. “That’s my job: to be the visionary.”
One big immediate need in the Community Risk Reduction Division is to meet the needs of a growing Anaheim, Coffelt said.
Requests for services — to review construction plans, inspect new buildings, etc. —- have doubled in the last five years with all the new construction going on in Anaheim, Coffelt said. In fact, AF&R’s Community Risk Reduction Division is on track this fiscal year ending June 30 to break the agency record for number of requests received in a year.
Last year, Bruegman renamed the division from its old title of Fire Prevention Division to more accurately reflect the breadth of services it provides.
“It’s not just about fire prevention and inspections, and not just about hazmat inspections, but this division also includes public education and community engagement,” said Coffelt, referring to such things as home safety visit program, station tours, the “Wear Your Helmet Like a Pro” bike safety initiative, a used oil recycling program, and much more.
Anaheim Fire & Rescue is at the forefront of a national push among fire service agencies to beef up community risk-reduction initiatives — one of Bruegman’s core strategic initiatives when he became fire chief in 2010.
“Exponential (construction) growth has created some challenges regarding staffing,” said Coffelt, adding that AF&R continues to deliver excellent service — but will need to staff up its Community Risk Reduction Division moving forward.
ALWAYS HIS GOAL
Coffelt can’t recall why, but ever since he was a kid growing up in La Habra he wanted to be a firefighter.
There were no firefighters in his family.
The youngest of four kids, Coffelt’s dad worked in construction and his mom, for some time, worked in the admissions office at Cal State Fullerton.
As soon as he finished high school, Coffelt went to Azusa Pacific University on a football scholarship but only stayed a semester.
“I felt I wanted to pursue the fire thing,” Coffelt said.
So he enrolled in Santa Ana College’s fire tech program and entered the fire academy in 1986, ending a part-time job at Knott’s Berry Farm he started three years earlier while in high school.
As fate would have it, Coffelt returned to Knott’s after the fire academy to work as a full-time EMT —- and met there his future wife, Wendy, who worked as a dispatcher in security at Knott’s.
Coffelt also worked alongside another firefighter Pat Russell, who would also go on to great success at Anaheim Fire & Rescue. Russell now is AF&R’s deputy chief, Operations.
Coffelt joined Anaheim Fire & Rescue in January 1988 as a firefighter, and over the past 28 years has served the department as an engineer, captain, battalion chief and deputy chief of Support Services.
In addition, Coffelt is a certified chief officer as designated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, a licensed paramedic, a certified hazardous materials technician, and an associate instructor in Fire Technology and Basic Fire Academy at Santa Ana College.
Coffelt has a daughter, Kristin, a nurse; and a son, Ryan, who is attending college in Utah as a business marketing major but who is toying with the idea of going into the military or following his father’s footsteps by joining the fire service.
Asked about his leadership style, Coffelt said: “I would say it’s collaborative. My strength is interpersonal skills and dealing with people, and I think that is what will be an asset in this new role.”
As for one of his most memorable calls, Coffelt cited the Great Laguna Beach Fire of 1993, which destroyed hundreds of homes.
“I remember coming down (Laguna Canyon Road) into town, we were coming down at night, and all you saw on the hillsides were blue flames,” he said. “We pulled into town, we were right down there on Coast Highway, and the reason we saw the blue flames was because all the homes had already burned down and what was burning were the gas lines. It was a very surreal scene.”
Coffelt called firefighting a “tremendously rewarding” career.
“It’s personally fulfilling, you make a difference in people’s lives and it’s been a good career to provide for a family,” he said. “It’s different every day and there’s always another discipline or skill set to learn. Things are never stagnant. There are always new challenges to face.”
In a prepared statement, Bruegman said of Coffelt’s appointment: “The role of fire marshal is extremely important, especially to an international destination such as our city. Deputy Chief Coffelt has the experience, expertise and enthusiasm to promote a safe environment that enhances the safety for our residents and guests.”
Along with Coffelt’s appointment in February, AF&R announced the promotions of Allen Hogue to deputy fire marshal, Gary Blevins to assistant fire marshal for the Hazardous Materials Section, and the addition of administrative analyst Elsa Covarrubias, who is responsible for community engagement and public education programs for Anaheim Fire & Rescue.
Most recently, Anaheim Fire & Rescue announced the appointment of Lindsey Young to assistant fire marshal for Life Safety. Young started her new job May 31.
Reporting to Coffelt, Hogue has served with Anaheim Fire & Rescue since 1991 and prior to his promotion, he served as interim fire marshal following the retirement of Lutz. Hogue was promoted to assistant fire marshal in 2013 after serving as fire Inspector since 1995.
“Deputy Fire Marshal Hogue has been involved in several of Anaheim’s major projects including the Anaheim Convention Center, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, Honda Center and Disney California Adventure,” Coffelt said in a statement. “His construction expertise combined with his knowledge of hazardous material management makes Allen a great asset to this team.”
Blevins joined Anaheim Fire & Rescue in 2007 as a hazardous materials specialist and joined the Fire Investigations Unit in 2013 prior to being promoted to supervise the Hazardous Materials Section, which is primarily responsible for regulatory inspections and enforcement of facilities and incidents involving hazardous materials and waste.
Assistant Fire Marshal Lindsey Young began her fire service career as a reserve with Anaheim Fire in 2006 and was hired as a part-time inspector that same year. In 2007, she left for a full-time position with Brea Fire where she was promoted to senior fire prevention specialist in 2010. Young earned her bachelor’s degree in business management from San Diego State University and lives in Placentia with her husband Michael and two sons, Logan, 3, and Vale, 1.
Covarrubias joined the City of Anaheim in 2008 as a plan check coordinator for the city’s Building Department. Most recently she served as a resource efficiency advisor for Anaheim Public Utilities, where she was responsible for community engagement and public education.
Covarrubias has a teaching credential from Chapman University and received her bachelor of arts in Spanish from UCLA. She also has a master’s degree in education from Whittier College.