Agitator and advocate: Alan Brunacini will be missed

"Chief Bruno" leaves a legacy of improving customer service and enacting change in the fire service

FireRescue1 joins the fire community in mourning the loss of fire icon Chief Alan Brunacini. (Read FireRescue1 and Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board remembrances of Chief Brunacini). 'Chief Bruno' was a pioneer for change in the fire service and a staunch advocate for Mrs. Smith. His legacy will remain and he will be missed. Rest easy, Chief. 

I first met Alan Brunacini in the 1980s, when he was teaching one day of a weeklong leadership program I was attending in Massachusetts. We had lunch together that day and like most of the thousands of people who knew him, I was charmed by the man and his stories, his humor and his insights.

Over the years, our paths crossed again many times, as presenters at conferences, while attending events, and once when I was privileged to be invited to participate in his annual Baggers meeting in Phoenix. Alan Brunacini gave so much to the fire service – his insistence on formal incident command systems, his focus on customer service and his mandate to “be nice,” his empowerment of those who worked with him.

But it was something that he said during that first meeting that affected me the most. At one point, he had asked the question, “What can you change?” He then answered his own question by saying, “Anything you are big enough to change.”

Chief Brunacini was such a rock star in the fire service that some people forget his origin story, but for him, it was essential.
Chief Brunacini was such a rock star in the fire service that some people forget his origin story, but for him, it was essential. (Photo/ISFSI)

Chief Brunacini was such a rock star in the fire service that some people forget his origin story, but for him, it was essential. He frequently talked about how he envisioned change for the fire service at a time when change was the last thing the fire department wanted to think about. As a young agitator in his department, he was exiled to the hinterlands in the hope that he would just give up.

He didn’t. He used the time in exile to prepare, to study, to get ready for when his moment would come. He tested for officer and did well, and was subsequently promoted. He began his steady climb up the ladder of rank and power within his department. Finally, when he was in a position of sufficient influence, he began to implement the changes he had been dreaming of for years. And at that point, they stuck. No longer a pariah, he was now a leader, a visionary, and people followed him eagerly.

It didn’t happen overnight. It took years, and many setbacks along the way, to reach a position where he could realize his vision. The challenge then was to make sure that vision was intact when the time finally came to implement it.

When he told me that day that you can change anything you are big enough to change, he was talking about his own long path to acquiring enough power and influence to make those changes. The problem is that some people spend so much energy in getting to that position, that they seem to forget why they wanted to be there in the first place.

Chief Brunacini encouraged advocacy in the fire service

I think Chief Brunacini would agree that one of the most frustrating things in the fire service is when people achieve positions of power and then do not use that power to make substantial and necessary change. You see it all the time – young idealistic firefighters who climb the promotional ladder only to leave their ideals and their visions behind.

Shortly after the death of John F. Kennedy, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, told his staff that his highest priority was passing the civil rights bill that President Kennedy had initiated. When warned by his aides that such a focus could jeopardize his own election ambitions, Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell is the presidency for?”

Real leadership involves risk, and it necessitates the positive use of power even if those actions require stepping out, going against the popular flow, even alienating some people along the way. Taking those risks worked out well for Alan Brunacini, and he became a true icon of the modern fire service. But there were many times along the way that this outcome was in no way certain. Chief Brunacini was willing to take that risk and encourage that risk-taking in others. He fundamentally changed the fire service and influenced many young firefighters along the way, including me, beginning over 30 years ago. He will be greatly missed.

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