Past IAFC Fire Chief of the Year winners reflect on Chief Bruno's legacy, moving the fire service forward

Chief Bruce Varner describes what it was like to win his Fire Chief of the Year award during a tumultuous time and Chief Thomas Kuntz recalls winning alongside Chief Alan Brunacini

Fire icon Chief Alan Brunacini, otherwise known as Chief Bruno, made an impact on the fire service in more ways than one. And while he may be gone, he is most definitely never forgotten – especially by two former International Association of Fire Chiefs Fire Chief of the Year award winners.

Chiefs Bruce Varner and Thomas Kuntz learned from Chief Bruno, along with many other mentors during their fire service career, that educating the community, putting the customer first and having empathy are some of the many keys to success as a fire chief.

Varner, former chief of the Carrollton (Texas) Fire Department for 12 years, won the 2001 award for Career Fire Chief of the Year. He also spent 25 years with the Phoenix Fire Department and served as the fire chief of the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Fire Department, where he retired in 2010. For Chief Varner, the year he won his award was darkened by a much larger event – the World Trade Center attacks in New York City.

Chiefs Bruce Varner (left) and Thomas Kuntz (right) give advice on what it takes to become Fire Chief of the Year.
Chiefs Bruce Varner (left) and Thomas Kuntz (right) give advice on what it takes to become Fire Chief of the Year. (Courtesy photos)

Kuntz, chief of the Red Lodge (Mont.) Fire Department, won the 2006 award for Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. At the start of his career, Chief Kuntz was more interested in the EMS side of public safety and became an EMT right after high school. When he was in college, he joined the fire department and his fire service career began. He has now been chief with the department for more than 20 years, and says it's people like Chief Bruno that have made an everlasting impact on himself as well as many other chiefs and firefighters.

"It's hard to deny the impact that someone like Alan Brunacini had on the whole profession," Chief Kuntz said. "He worked tirelessly for years and years to make the entire profession better. Even after he retired, he continued to be a great contributor."

I interviewed Chiefs Varner and Kuntz, and asked what crowning achievement made them stand out from other nominees and their advice on what it takes to become Fire Chief of the Year.

Don't forget – the deadline to nominate a chief for this year's award is May 20. Learn more about how to nominate a chief here. Past Fire Chief of the Year award winners can also be viewed here.

What made you stand out from the other nominees?

Chief Varner: I applied things that I had learned in Phoenix. When I went to Carrollton, I was the third paid fire chief for the city. Carrollton had an operations chief who had been a big Phoenix and Brunacini fan for a number of years. As a result, the department had adopted most of Phoenix's operational procedures – so that made it very easy for me, coming from the outside, to figure out what was going on operationally. We focused on community education and our customers by serving the citizens of our community the very best we could.

Chief Kuntz: I was humbled by the fact that I was nominated, let alone received the award. I had been working hard to improve the relationship between the federal wildland agencies and local government, and to improve the response to wildland fires throughout the nation.

What's the most profound memory you have of winning?

Chief Varner: I didn't know Pete Ganci, chief of department at the FDNY, very well, but we came off the stage and he came up and congratulated me. We stood there and talked for about 10 minutes. Two weeks later, he died at the World Trade Center.

Here's a guy from the largest fire department in the country and he took the time to stand with an essentially very small fire department chief, in comparison. But he's the kind of person the FDNY breeds. It doesn't matter where you're from; they treat you very, very well.

The conference was in August 2001 and normally, the next issue of FIRE CHIEF would have had the Fire Chief of the Year award winners – except then 9/11 happened. For me, it's something that continues to stand out to this day.

Chief Kuntz: I think I was most honored that I received the award for Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year at the same time Alan Brunacini received Career Fire Chief of the Year. It was almost surreal. It just accentuated the importance of the award and it was really humbling. I couldn't even imagine ever in my lifetime having the impact on the fire service like he had. I was still relatively young when I received the award. To be there at the same time was definitely humbling. He was very supportive of me.

Chief Kuntz with Alan Brunacini.
Chief Kuntz with Alan Brunacini. (Courtesy photo)

What does it take to be Fire Chief of the Year material?

Chief Varner: You have to remember that you can accomplish more things by working together than by working apart from one another. You have to recognize that you have responsibilities and sometimes you just have to do your job – and it may not be what someone would like to see, but you need to be productive for the members of the organization as well as the public. More importantly, you also have to have empathy and be kind.

Chief Kuntz: The reality is – it's your ability to focus on the mission. You have to have the ability to see through all of the noise that easily gets created. You have to be a good fire chief, but I think there's more to it than that. It's the ability to see the bigger picture and you have to be devoted to the profession. You also have to be devoted to making all fire chiefs and firefighters better in some way, shape or form. You need to be able to bring the whole profession up, and some people focus exclusively on safety or leadership – there's a variety of different ways that someone could do that.

What do you want your legacy to be?

Chief Varner: I was essentially raised in the fire service by Alan Brunacini. Alan was a friend and mentor. When I was working to get hired by Phoenix, he was a captain at the time. We hit it off and maintained a friendship. When he passed away, he was coming back from a trip where he had been with a group of cops that he annually hung out with – their principle topics were customer service and taking care of Mrs. Smith – a mantra he had for years and years.

I hope I've managed to hold onto about half of what he taught me. You'd call him and ask for advice, and he would ask you questions until you figured it out yourself. He was a great mentor, and I hope I've been that for someone as well.

Chief Kuntz: In the end, I hope that I helped people and made someone better. I hope that I helped connect people, because being able to bring people together allows them to help each other out. 

If you would like to nominate someone for Fire Chief of the Year, follow the directions here.

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