When I entered the fire service in 1985, I had no idea who Alan Brunacini was. It wasn’t until around 1988 that I had heard of him while taking classes at the Georgia Fire Academy. He was often referenced or quoted by instructors, and the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department was often the topic of discussion. It wasn’t until I was helping with a project to research some operational policies that I had my first glimpse into the man and his method of operation.
A staff member at the Georgia Fire Academy had requested copies of the Phoenix Fire Department policies, which he forwarded to me to use in my research. The first thing I noticed was the odd cartoon face drawn on the front of the two-inch-thick stack of standard operating procedures with a note, “Here you go, Jeff.” Wow, I thought to myself, he knows that Brunacini guy, and he sent these to him and took the time to personalize it. Phoenix would receive thousands of requests for its policies over his tenure as chief.
During the next decade, I became more interested in incident command and read Fire Command. I was already a student of the incident command system and the multiple dynamic interactions and coordination that must take place to make the system work; the book heightened my interest to learn more. The name Brunacini continued to come up often, but he was still some guy out west who was extremely influential but way out of reach to me.
In 1995, I had watched our state fire chiefs make the decision to do away with requiring firefighters to meet the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, physical fitness requirements because of concerns meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was in a circle of people highly opposed to doing away with the standard. Even though it wasn’t a perfect standard, at least it was something, and we felt that something was better than nothing. At the time, the fire chiefs had no alternative and basically abolished the requirement and left physical fitness requirements up to the individual departments. In other words, everyone could do their own thing or have no requirement at all.
I was elected union president in 1997, just a young 31-year-old with 12 years in the fire service. After seeing the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) jointly produced by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), our board saw the opportunity to bring back some level of physical requirements. At the time, most area departments had abandoned physical fitness screening for candidates and only required the NFPA medical exam. We coordinated through our five-department council and the IAFF. CPAT was new, and the desire to get it out into the fire service was immense. I worked with Rich Duffy at the IAFF to set up a full CPAT demo in Georgia. One of our major roadblocks was that the majority of the departments either didn’t have a local IAFF affiliate or the local IAFF affiliate had a very adversarial relationship with the department management. Even with help from the IAFC, we knew we would only draw the lower level officers and not the decision makers to the event. Rich Duffy suggested that I talk to Chief Brunacini and see if he would be willing to make an appearance, in addition to the representatives from the United States Department of Civil Rights, a few fire department physicians, and several committee members from the pilot departments. (Phoenix was one of the original pilot departments.) Duffy set up a call between the three of us and we coordinated a date that coincided with a trip Brunacini already had on the books to Georgia. All he needed was a hotel room for the night before and transportation from the airport—and, of course, dinner.
I picked Brunacini up at the airport in my forest green 1995 Ford Explorer. As he hopped in, the first thing he said was, “Nice color.” So here I was with the guy I had heard so much about for so many years. We caught up on the schedule for the CPAT demo, and we just naturally started talking shop. I think that was around 3:00 p.m., and it proceeded through dinner and after dinner back at the hotel. My plan was to drop him off at his hotel and then head home.
As we pulled up to the hotel, he asked me if I had a few minutes because he wanted to show me some information from the Phoenix Fire Department. Once he got checked in, we headed up to the room, and he took out a few sheets of paper and proceeded to tell me how the Phoenix Fire Department took better care of its fire trucks than it did its people. He had a few stats and some additional information from the successes of the CPAT and other medical initiatives that it had implemented. It was immediately apparent that he wasn’t just gracing me or Georgia with his presence or doing a little political payback to the IAFF/IAFC. He wanted to be here, and he wanted me to understand how important it was to get this in place for our firefighters and then expand it to a full health and wellness initiative. I asked for advice on how to repair a long-term adversarial relationship among our union, local government leadership, and department administration. He had plenty to share and was interested in how we operated and the things we were experiencing.
I think we wrapped up the conversation around 10:00 p.m., and I left. I lived about 45 minutes away, and my head was spinning with all the things we discussed over the seven hours that seemed like one. I literally could not wait to pick him up at 7:00 a.m. and start back up where we left off. (As I am writing about this encounter from nearly 20 years ago, it is important to realize that, at that time, Bruno was 60 years old and had been in the fire service for 40 years. I am now 51 and have been in the fire service 32 years. So, today I am still almost a decade away from his age and seniority then. To him, I was just a kid and remained that throughout the years I knew him.)
Our carefully devised CPAT plan worked well. Fire chiefs came from all over the state to see Chief Brunacini and, while they were there, they got to see and hear about CPAT. He knew why he was there, and he didn’t mind at all. He even joked about it early that morning, saying, “I’m the bait, now come on, fishy, fishy.” They had taken the bait! Dozens of fire chiefs showed up from all around the state. The IAFF was happy, the union boards were happy, and the fire chiefs now thought this CPAT thing was one of the greatest things ever! (Thanks, Bruno!)
Once we were done, one of the chiefs was there to take Bruno on to his next event. Before he left, he made sure he left me his office number and his home number and insisted that I keep him up to date on our progress. At the time, I had never heard his “Be Nice” mantra. He never once mentioned it that I can recall. That was so much a part of the legitimacy of his philosophy. It really wasn’t a slogan or just a sticker; it was Brunacini. Because his passion for firefighters was so apparent, because of his willingness to help us out with our cause, because he wanted the seven hours of conversation, he became real to me (the kid). It would have been very easy for him to just say, “Thanks for the ride, young man. I think I will go up to the room and get some rest. I’ve been traveling a lot. See you tomorrow.” But no way, not Bruno. I was the most important kid in the world to him for those two days—or so he made me feel. He left me inspired and more educated on what the union board and I were trying to accomplish. He left me with an example of how to treat people at work and how work should treat people. That short two-day encounter was the foundation of our 20-year relationship that included serving the past 11 years on the Fire Engineering advisory board together.
Over the next two to three years, CPAT became the standard physical test for most of the area departments, and health and wellness phased in slowly over the next decade. The seeds planted back then continue to evolve, and only a handful of people even remember the event or its purpose. That’s the beauty of influence from being nice and competent without needing credit.
I really wanted to tell this story, and I am grateful for the platform and the freedom to do it here. The main reason for wanting to tell it is because I know it is not unique at all. There are thousands of people out there with a similar Bruno experience, and my relationship with him was no different than the thousands of others. Bruno saw the value in each person he met and understood the power of relationships. He used his status for good and was as comfortable talking shop to us kids as he was talking serious policy with a roomful of chiefs. In fact, I’m pretty sure he preferred talking shop with us kids. If you have a Bruno story you would like to share, please send it to me, as I would like to preserve this man’s legacy from other “kids’” perspectives.
David Rhodes is a 32-year fire service veteran. He is a chief elder for the Georgia Smoke Diver Program, a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) International Executive Advisory Board, a hands-on training coordinator for FDIC, an editorial advisor for Fire Engineering and the UL Fire Safety Research Institute, and an adjunct instructor for the Georgia Fire Academy. He is a Type III incident commander for the Georgia Emergency Management-Metro Atlanta All Hazards Incident Management Team and is a task force leader for the Georgia Search and Rescue Team. He is president of Rhodes Consultants, Inc., which provides public safety training, consulting, and promotional assessment centers.