Fire chief retires today; legacy one of caring, stressing safety

Lindsey Collom
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 31, 2006 12:00 AM

Every weekend for 25 years, Alan Brunacini has stripped, sanded and fine-tuned the same open-cab fire engine he rode as a rookie in 1958.

He bought the truck at auction for $500 in 1981 and has been restoring it ever since with the help of a long-time colleague.

"Anything we thought that needed to be done, we did it," Brunacini said. "It's all details, which is really the fun of it.

"You better take your time and you better do it right."

Brunacini, who has been at the helm of the Phoenix Fire Department since 1978, retires today. His philosophy of approaching every task with care and patience took him from rookie to the top job, and has helped him forge a legacy as one of the best-known chiefs in the nation for his work to improve customer service and firefighter safety.

Fire departments nationwide have tried to emulate the Phoenix way. And departments worldwide consider Brunacini's books on safety, customer relations and leadership to be definitive works.

Through it all, he has remained a frontline firefighter at heart. Everything he has done over a 48-year career can usually be traced back to his overwhelming sense of what it takes to tackle a burning building and come back safe.

"People will ask him what he does and he always tells them he's a firefighter," his wife, Rita, said. "I've never heard him tell anyone upfront that he's the fire chief. I think he truly feels he's one of the guys."

Ideas in a notebook
Brunacini keeps a tidy workspace. In the chief's world, absence of paper means action. He's always coming up with new concepts, always thinking about the fire service and how to make it better. He scribbles ideas into a notebook he keeps in his breast pocket.

He hopes his firefighters are doing the same thing.

"There's a little folklore in our system that says if you have an idea, don't go to the fire chief unless you want to do it," Brunacini said. "Probably what he's going to tell you is why don't you try that?"

"His secret is that he includes everybody," assistant Kathi Hilmes said. "There's no ego in him. He wants to give power to the people."

Administrators weren't always so open. When Brunacini entered the fire service, he said the message was: "If you weren't the chief and you had an idea, you had better keep it to yourself."

But as long as Brunacini has been on top, firefighters and other staff members have had a voice. After all, nobody knows the job better than they do.

"The magic is not to sit in an ivory tower and think you know everything," Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan said.

Brunacini doesn't claim to be intellectually superior. He's smart, but he's also a good-humored, no-frills guy who wears Hawaiian shirts to work and speaks just as plainly as his firefighters do.

He encourages them to recognize a need in the field and find a solution. For example, firefighters initiated two programs that focus on providing better service to customers.

The Community Assistance Program focuses on victims' emotional needs in the wake of an emergency.

Volunteers trained in grief and stress counseling began accompanying firefighters to emergencies in 1995. Today, the crisis teams continue to give emotional support and information on how to recover from a fire or other traumatic event.

Another program helps firefighters communicate effectively with Spanish speakers.

More than 300 firefighters have gone through the Spanish Immersion Firehouse since its inception in 2002. Two stations train employees through classes and by serving Spanish-speaking areas.

Customer service
Hundreds of letters and e-mails trickle in to the fire chief each year from customers.

Some letters ask the chief to commend a particular firefighter or crew, others simply say thank you. One note in particular caught the chief's attention in the late 1980s.

The author said firefighters arrived quickly and solved her problem. She then spent two pages describing how nice they were to her.

Her words resonated with Brunacini: People don't remember the technical aspects, just the way they're treated.

It was the same idea his wife deposited into his brain years before.

"It really started in the early '60s," Rita said. "We were planting a garden by the house and talking about the problems of the world and I said, in my simplistic way, the problem with the world is that people aren't nice to one another. If you took the opportunity to be nice instead of nasty, we would have no problems in a week because people would take care of each other and all of the problems would disappear.

"As he went along in his life, he thought about that from time to time and decided that was not such a bad plan. He applied that to his life and everything flows out of that."

Historically, firefighters were not taught to deal with victims' emotional needs. Brunacini wanted to go beyond the technical and tactical components of firefighting to place the customer at the center of planning and operations.

He named that customer Mrs. Smith. She was never a real person, just a generic representation of the average customer.

Academy recruits learn about Mrs. Smith and how to make her happy. She is considered when making any sort of operational decision, and the service she gets is quick, skillful, safe and caring, Khan said.

Maybe Mrs. Smith's kitchen is on fire. Firefighters douse the flames and, once they clean up, realize a small stove she used to warm the house had sparked the blaze. Firefighters pool their money and install a heater in her home.

Or Mr. Smith has a heart attack while pouring cement for a driveway. Paramedics stabilize him and take him to the hospital while fire crews stick around to finish the work.

"It's about delivering the highest level of compassionate, effective service to someone who's having the worst day of his life," Khan said.

Brunacini's ode to Mrs. Smith, the book Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service, is widely used among the firefighting community.

Gordon Sweetnam, deputy chief of the Calgary, Alberta, Fire Department, said Brunacini's work in this area would be one of his legacies.

"The fire service has always been good at customer service, (but) he took it to a new level," Sweetnam said.

Safety improvements
Veterans remember the pain of their plastic helmets melting in a firefight. Brunacini said his ears still feel like potato chips when they're cold.

The job was "almost suicidal" then. Firefighters' protective clothing was flammable. Their boots warped, and without protective masks, choking and gagging from smoke came with the territory.

In addition to unsafe gear, firefighters acted like free agents on the fire ground. There was no action plan or coordination. It was chaotic and unsafe, said Billy Shields, president of the United Phoenix Fire Fighters Association.

Brunacini changed that, Shields said.

For nearly three decades, the chief has guided the department in placing structure on the madness and putting the right tools in the hands of firefighters.

He has also tried to keep them healthy. Under his leadership, the department opened its own health clinic with physicians who strive to provide better medical evaluations, give advice on maintaining health, consult on exposures and stress and improve injury recovery.

The clinic also operates a wellness center for personnel who want to improve fitness, lose weight, quit smoking, manage stress or get help with other quality-of-life issues.

Learning from tragedy
No matter how much preparation or structure is put in place, bad things can happen. Losing Bret Tarver in 2001 was one of them.

Tarver, 40, died when he became disoriented and ran out of air inside a burning Southwest Supermarket at 35th Avenue and McDowell Road.

"You wished you didn't have to go through that experience of losing one of your own," Brunacini said. "My goal was just to fix the system. We literally asked every member of the Fire Department what could we have done to prevent this."

Moving forward required looking in the mirror and into the past.

Hilmes said her boss made them walk through the ashes and see the debris. That year was spent investigating the fire, pinpointing what went wrong and telling the story.

"We said if somebody dies, we didn't do anything great. Nobody else will say it," Hilmes said. "To go out there and admit it so that everyone could learn about the experience, most departments wouldn't do that.

"They're afraid of being sued. Here, there was no fear."

There was only the desire to make firefighting safer.

Administrators spent the next five years repairing the system and learning how to better deal with commercial fires. The culmination of training occurred this year with a large-scale drill to recreate the Southwest Supermarket fire.

The project winds down
The open-cab truck should be finished this fall.

Left are the rear wheel-wells to be painted and installed. Then it's the finishing touches, the gold leafing.

Just as the restoration project comes to an end, so does a career.

It would be easy for Brunacini to stay at the top a little longer, "to be selfish." He thinks it's time to "turn it over to the kids."

The love and excitement he felt as a rookie is still there, perhaps stronger.

"I've had the greatest time being a firefighter," he said. "Are there things I'd like to continue to be involved in? Yeah.

"I think it's going to take a while for everybody to figure out what to do with me."