The sudden death of a veteran firefighter and paramedic after a routine training exercise Thursday shocked his colleagues at the Orange County Fire Authority, who remembered the Irvine resident as man driven by an unfailing work ethic and a devotion to his community. James M. Owen, 56, was taking a break from search and rescue drills at OCFA headquarters in Irvine just before 11:30 a.m., when the 30-year veteran suddenly collapsed in full cardiac arrest.
Despite the attempted life-saving efforts of his fellow firefighters and paramedics, Owens was pronounced dead an hour later at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, leaving his colleagues to mourn a man they described as an iconic figure known for hard work and generosity.
"He was a top-notch firefighter," OCFA Capt. Greg McKeown said. "To lose him like this is a tragedy."
Owen may have grown up in Buena Park, but friends say it was Irvine that he took as both his career-long assignment and his adopted home, ties that led his fellow firefighters to jokingly refer to Owen as "the mayor."
Beginning as a firefighter and later as a medic and hazardous-materials worker, Owen would get involved in every aspect of an emergency situation. OCFA Division Chief Mike Boyle, who served as Owen's captain for many years, recalled a 2002 fire in a UC Irvine science building, where Owen was instrumental in getting the blaze under control, and then spent the next few days helping to clean up chemicals.
As a department veteran, Owen took many younger firefighters under his wing, helping them with the transition from the academy to on-the-ground reality.
"Jim taught the school of common sense," Boyle said. "He was the first one to help out a new person with the way do things."
Owen was an assertive firefighter with an outgoing and quirky personality, the kind of guy who would go to the grocery store and strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, Boyle said.
Owen was devoted not only to the job and the community, but also his co-workers. OCFA Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion, who worked as Owen's medic partner for several years, said Owen was known to carry a wad of $100 bills, which he would give or loan to those who needed a hand.
"He was always the first to sign up for the tough assignments," Concepcion said. "But as aggressive as he was at fighting fires, he was just as compassionate with his patients. He had a knack for it, almost as if he was born to be a firefighter."
An upfront man who was unafraid to voice his opinions, Owen was also never one to carry a grudge.
In his spare time, Owen loved to spend time with his wife Sharon and his sons Jim Jr., Daniel and Kevin, whom he would take on trips in their motorhome.
Owen was also an avid fisherman who would occasionally help out by working as a deckhand and boat operator at the Dana Point harbor, and had expressed interest in obtaining a mariner license during his retirement, Boyle said.
Owen's death reverberated to the larger Irvine community, with city leaders offering their support to OCFA and the Owen family.
"My thoughts and prayers go out to Jim Owen's family, as well as our partners at the Orange County Fire Authority," Irvine Police Chief Dave Maggard said. "Jim was an important part of our community, and he served our city for many years with professionalism, compassion and care."
Hardest hit were Owen's colleagues, who are still coming to grips with his sudden death.
"They can't believe it, that is what everyone is saying," Boyle said. "He never quit; he never gave up. I think he enjoyed making a difference."