Leaders remember Alan Brunacini, fire service legend

Chief Brunacini had one mission: to make the fire service a safer, more effective and efficient operation

Fire service icon Chief Alan Brunacini passed away Oct. 15, 2017 (read Linda Willing's tribute to 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. 

Be nice

"We each have a different way we can describe Fire Chief Alan V. Brunacini. Through our experiences and interactions with him, each one is unique. Some will describe him as a professional colleague. Some will describe him as a career mentor. Many will describe him as the most progressive and visionary icon the fire service has, and may ever know. However, all of us that he has touched in one way or another call him a friend.

"I first met Bruno through Fire Chief Dennis Rubin, for whom I will always be in debt to for creating that opportunity. I remember my first meeting sitting next to Chief Bruno in Phoenix, and as people were talking about texting, Xbox and PlayStations, Bruno leaned over with his smirk-smile, put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Alright kid, you’ll have to explain this technology crap to me.' He pulled out a little notepad and pen and said, 'Remember, I’m an old guy and this is my Blackberry.'

Chief Brunacini wanted firefighters to work hard, be safe, be nice to Mrs. Smith and go home to their families after a response or shift
Chief Brunacini wanted firefighters to work hard, be safe, be nice to Mrs. Smith and go home to their families after a response or shift

"Since that time, I have had many opportunities for he and I to present, and as he described it, 'hang out together.' Despite where I sat in the room, whether in the front of the room as a co-presenter/speaker, or in the audience, I remained a student of his. Like so many others, we were always in awe when Bruno entered the room.

"We all learned kindness and humility from Bruno, as he was the master at it. But if there are two nuggets of knowledge that I remembered from Bruno, they were:

  1. 'People die according to code.'
  2. 'Fire chiefs need to stop telling city managers what resources they need to do the job, and start telling them what job they can do with the resources they have.'
Billy Hayes and Chief Brunacini
Billy Hayes and Chief Brunacini

"I wish I had had the opportunity to spend more time with him, soak up more knowledge from him, and hear some of his stories one more time that I’ve heard dozens of times so it’s as if I was there when it happened. My notes on napkins and notecards he made for me, my autographed fire chief helmet and books he signed, my voicemails from him, my photos and videos, will all serve as reminders of my time with America’s Fire Chief.

"I wish to extend my thoughts, prayers and gratitude to the Brunacini Family for their gift to me with the time I got to spend with The Chief.

"God bless, be safe and be nice!"

–Billy Hayes, former fire chief, Riverdale (Ga.) Fire Department, and past-president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association 

Helping us see how much better we could do the job

“Chief Brunacini was a pioneer in so many aspects of fire service leadership.  His impact will live on in perpetuity.  For our organization, one of the earliest impacts was his customer service philosophy – helping Mrs. Smith in every way.  His book, Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service, is required reading for all of our officers as is provides the perfect understanding our how to deliver more than just a response to a fire call, by recognizing that everyone is a customer. 

“Chief Brunacini helped us to better understand that by doing the little things at incidents, our customers on their worst day could be put at ease, and appreciate us so much more.  Rest in peace Chief, and thanks for helping us see how much better we could do the job!”

–Ted Aroesty, executive director, Brighton (N.Y.) Fire District

What can you change?

"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.'

"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.

–Linda Willing, adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy, and owner, RealWorld Training and Consulting

A safer, more effective and efficient operation

"What did Chief Alan (Bruno) Brunacini mean to me personally and professionally? He was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met or encountered. He would talk about firefighters, command, old fire trucks, his grown kids, grandkids, and his wife Rita for hours on end. 
"He was pushy without being pushy. Look at the things he accomplished. He pulled the fire service to come along as hard as anyone has ever tried to pull us along. He was an innovator, visionary, dreamer and consulate note taker. He was the ultimate story teller. He could relate to the little fire department as well as the big fire department, and to the volunteer, career, labor, fire chief, officer and firefighter and the challenges of each. He influenced the fire service all across the spectrum. 

"He had one overriding mission: to make the fire service a safer, more effective and efficient operation. He wanted firefighters to work hard, be safe, be nice to Mrs. Smith and go home to their families after a response or shift. I can’t remember the first time I ran into him in which he remembered my name, but that was the highlight of one of our many encounters.

"My hurt does not compare to that of his family. Suffice it to say we have all lost a friend that if we would’ve asked, he would’ve helped in some way. I think that will be one of his many legacies in my opinion – he helped.

"Over the years, I have collected a number of quotes from Chief Brunacini:

  • 'If you want to make changes in the workers’ behavior, change the behavior of the boss.'
  • 'Don’t make safety a contest.'
  • 'Any firefighter can out-perform all of the safety aspects we have in a nanosecond.'
  • 'This is just an old geezer in a funny shirt lecturing a bunch of kids again.'
  • 'If you don’t think that the kinds of things that we do are deadly serious, then you need to wake up to that. Pay attention.'
  • 'Responders are the first and last resort for Mrs. Smith.'
  • 'The problem these young firefighters face is not that they lack basic intelligence (just the opposite). It is that, at the current stage of their career, they lack operational experience. As one advice-seeking young man told me, ‘Chief, I'm getting old as fast as I can!’ Their challenge is simply they haven't been in and around very many burning buildings.'"

–Chief John M. Buckman, III, co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section

Why shouldn't you try it?

I first met Chief Alan Brunacini as a student of the ISFSI's Company Officer Development I Class in Ashland, MA in 1985. Chief Brunacini presented engine and truck company operations for the day and had each of us in the class amazed at his candor, wit and knowledge.

Alan was the first person I spoke to when the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation considered getting involved in the prevention of firefighters’ line of duty deaths and injuries.  When I asked him if the NFFF should take on this challenge, he said, “Why shouldn’t you try, it would be better for the families to have their firefighters at home with them then to come to Emmitsburg to be memorialized.”

Alan has been a friend over the years and we both shared in our passion of owning a Mack Fire Truck.  May he rest in peace.

–Ron Siarnicki, executive director, National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation     

A loss for all of us

I was at home the other day accomplishing nothing, when a coworker texted me with the news that former Phoenix Fire Dept. Chief Alan Brunacini had passed. My immediate reaction was of course sorrow for the chief and his family, and the entire Phoenix Fire Dept., but after reflection, it’s a loss for all of us in this business.

I would submit to you Alan Brunacini might be the most well known and one of the most influential fire service leaders of all time. Mind you that’s saying a lot. We have been blessed with a lot of great people in this business. And I’m going back all the way to John T. O’Hagan of the FDNY, and then there’s Ben Franklin who founded the Union Fire Company. I’m not sure how many people today even realize what Ben did for fire safety back in the day.

When a celebrity passes, especially one you have watched or grown up with, you feel like you have lost somebody you know. I’m sure a lot of fire service people feel the same way about Chief Brunacini.

Back in the day, when he toured the country doing his presentations, it was one of those things you have to do – very much like being a baseball fan making the trip to Fenway or Wrigley just to say you did it. So naturally when he came through our part of the world, I attended I think twice.

His presentations were great comedy. He was hysterically funny, but not in an annoying way. His humor was self-deprecating and subtle. He was a great story teller and Lord knows we have a lot of those in this business. A good instructor can incorporate a story to make a point. Some instructors just tell stories to give themselves legitimacy, the Commander McBraggs of the world.

Chief Brunacini’s stories were funny, but they reinforced a point and you could take something away from them.

Aside from being intimate with his “Fire Command” book which I took a couple of promotional test out of, I had the good fortune of meeting him twice. He was always very gracious with everybody and didn’t act the part of being a major player in the fire service.  He would stop and shake hands and listen to some young kids tell about a car fire they once made, smile and chat with them.

I think the most important concepts I took from him were offensive and defensive operations never take place at the same time, and never breathe smoke. I think that is in the back of one his books. I’ve probably breathed more smoke than I should but I do remember it.

Thanks for all you did Chief.

–Will Wyatt, FireRescue1 columnist and author of the book, "And a Paycheck, Too!

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