Firehouse® Interview: Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini

Alan Brunacini has been a member of the Phoenix Fire Department since 1958. He was promoted through the ranks and was appointed to the position of fire chief in 1978. He heads a fire department with over 1,400 members in a city with a population over one million.

Photo Courtesy of the Phoenix FD
Phoenix Fire Chief, Alan Brunacini

He is a 1960 graduate of the Fire Protection Technology program at Oklahoma State University and earned a degree in political science at Arizona State University in 1970. He graduated from the Urban Executives program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973 and earned a master of public administration degree from Arizona State in 1975.

Brunacini is the chairman of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 Technical Committee for Fire Service Organization and Deployment Projects for paid departments. He is past chairman of the Board of Directors of the NFPA, the first active fire service member to hold this position. He is also past chairman of the Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health Committee of NFPA, which was responsible for the development of Standard 1500. This document, adopted in 1987, is aimed at reducing firefighter deaths and injuries, while promoting health and fitness programs and is having a major impact on the fire service.

Brunacini has instructed at workshops and seminars, dealing with Fireground Operations, Health and Safety, Customer Service and Fire Department Management. His book, Fire Command, has become a popular text for students of firefighting and was supplemented by a movie that demonstrates his fireground commander system in action. He has recently completed a second book titled, Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service. Brunacini is also a popular speaker at Firehouse Expo and other fire service conferences and meetings, and has been recognized for his accomplishments with numerous awards and honors from many organizations. He was interviewed by Firehouse® Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner.

Firehouse: Are there some accomplishments of yours that you think are more outstanding than others?

Brunacini: In the last 20 years or so, I think the things that we have done are not that much different than probably the mainstream of the fire service.

I mean, EMS we did in the '70s and '80s. We did incident management. We've been involved in safety, special operations with everybody, the hazmat, high angle, low angle, swiftwater and all that business.

We've been able to connect with a lot of other people in the fire service, so we've tried to stay connected with what's going on, on the outside. You see a lot of people from Phoenix out at the conferences and at the meetings, and we certainly appreciate the chance to get out and do that. The city is very expansive in trying to look at what is the state of the art in the process. It makes it a lot easier when you work in a place that encourages progress.

Firehouse: Are there any special programs in which you reach out to the community through customer service? Are there some things that give public here "more for their buck" than other places?

Brunacini: We spent 10, 20 years developing the technical/tactical part of the system. The next phase or the next adventure for us was a lot more human. In other words, that we've been lucky because we've been able to do a lot of human resource management inside the system. An example of that is our labor relationship - we've had just an exceptional relationship with the local here, which is Local 493.

Firehouse: Just as good as when (former local president) Pat Cantalme was here?

Brunacini: Yes, and it started with Pat, who was the union president for 20 years, and now Billy Shields, who was Pat's assistant, has assumed that role. The change between Pat and Billy was just absolutely transparent.

We had, through the last 15 years, developed a process in which five major labor-management committees genuinely managed the vast majority of the policy and the operation of the department. It has really been interesting to watch that relationship and that system grow because it has worked so well for us.

They really and truly become the experts in their areas, both on the labor side and the management side. There's a co-chair from each and the committees are well represented, but are very open. Anybody can attend. They're all publicized. Then the results are published in the system.

It has created the structure that we use primarily for participation. In other words, anybody gets involved in the work of those committees. Everybody has access to them, so if somebody has an idea, a suggestion or is concerned or disagrees or agrees or whatever, there's a lot of opportunities to be able to approach and deal with the system.

It sounds very simple. For us it's produced a really good result. We share a mutual concern about the welfare of the work force. In other words, we have very, very few disagreements on the way we hire or train or manage or project or provide for a whole array of services.

Firehouse: What about the health and safety of the members?

Brunacini: We operate our own health center and they do a lot of preventive medicine, a lot of occupational medicine too. We've made a huge effort here in the last 20 years toward operational safety. We have probably one of the largest safety staffs of a metro fire department. There's a safety officer assigned to every district. We have an occupational hygienist. The assistant chief of the division is a certified safety specialist.

I think that for us it's been a very positive and high-profile program of just simply having the firefighters go home in the morning. We've taken that very seriously, a program that is sort of a centerpiece.

It's probably the most important thing we do. I've been a fire chief for years and the thing you can go to bed worrying about and wake up thinking about is, just simply, are your guys OK? I think we have been able to develop some resources that have really worked well. That has evolved into this customer stuff. This has been an adventure, to begin to create the systems that focus on the needs of those who receive our services.

And here you start to see the stories of the actual cases where firefighters are delivering those kinds of added value services and core services too. You don't stop doing substantive fire control and EMS, and all the other kinds of service things. I mean that's what gets you in the door.

Firehouse: What's the economic state of Phoenix now? How do you deal with tough times?

Brunacini: Phoenix has been a fast-growing city for the last 35 years or so. We're in a perpetual growth mode.

We have been through recessions where we cut back. We're part of the city, so obviously we're not immune from that (economic downturns) and I don't think we should be either.

We've tried to manage that in ways it didn't really affect direct service delivery.

The Phoenix Fire Department, I think like most fire departments, is very, very popular in the community. Unless there was a huge recession, if somebody wanted to cut us back, there could be some political consequences to that just because we provide an essential service.

Firehouse: Are the employees the most important resource the department has?

Brunacini: Yes. The only thing we keep for 30 years is a firefighter, so that's a pretty significant investment. When I hear somebody say that their humans are their most important asset, my response is prove it. In other words, how do you manage your humans?

One of the things that has changed in the fire service, thankfully, has been the whole wellness process - the way we do medical support, rehab, fitness, behavioral health and the way we manage safety.

Somebody said it's hard to be well when going to work makes you sick. Duh! So one of the things that we try to do is to be nice to the firefighters.

Firehouse: Are there special attributes that you look for in hiring your firefighters now maybe that you didn't look at before? Are there any special areas?

Brunacini: We're obviously looking for people who can deliver service. They have to go into a fire company and be the fourth person in the fire company, so they've got to understand and be proficient enough to be able to be at least 25% of that company.

We're trying to attract people who have high aptitude to deliver good customer service. Does this person have the basic hardware and software personally and sort of vaporware to be able to deliver good service?

Our young firefighters are the best young firefighters we've ever had. And they just keep getting better too, honestly. I think the challenge is how you manage it. In other words, look at the groups that are coming in, where they're coming from, the reason that they're coming to Phoenix and what their needs are.

Firehouse: Your members have to deal with many customers who speak languages other than English.

Photo Courtesy of the Phoenix FD
Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini (standing): "We do more and more command training… If you look at the NIOSH reports, the number-one cause of firefighter fatalities is a lack of incident command."

Brunacini: We're on the superhighway from Mexico and Central and South America, so we have some real challenges with language. We've had a huge initiative to try and teach firefighters to speak Spanish. Right now, we've got over 100 firefighters in language programs that we're teaching in fire stations.

There are companies that are going to Hispanic supermarkets and setting up a card table and doing blood pressure checks, just to be able to speak Spanish to the people.

We're trying to connect to the community. We're building community rooms in the fire stations, and we have an active program with community associations, homeowner groups and neighborhood associations.

Local government is run by neighborhoods now. We're trying to get fire companies connected to those neighborhood groups to see the opportunities that we have to not only get to know them, but to see how we can serve them more effectively.

Firehouse: Do you have other new ideas to help the community?

Brunacini: We're talking about Dial-A-Ride using AVL (automatic vehicle locaters) that we have for fire trucks. We've offered to coordinate Dial-A-Ride out of fire stations.

There have been huge complaints about Dial-A-Ride. Somebody goes and gets dialysis, they have to wait three hours to get a ride. We're not trying to be all things to all people, but the old days of locking yourself up in a fire station look pretty stupid now.

Firehouse: Did the addition of EMS transport 15 years ago turn out the way you had planned or did you have to make corrections?

Brunacini: Well, we do course corrections now about every two hours, but other than that the best thing we ever did is transportation.

Firehouse: And those runs increase every year?

Brunacini: On 50% of the EMS calls, we transport. There were 100,000 EMS calls last year and we did 50,000 transports. We have the highest collection rate of any city in the country, and EMS transport saves lives.

In 1985, we changed the mortality and morbidity of the EMS system in Phoenix.

EMS isn't a day in the park. They're calling for you - particularly today. The E used to stand for emergency medical service. Now it stands for everything. So we're really more of a social service - we're a social service that occasionally goes to an EMS event and a fire because we're mostly doing social services.

The fires are going up too. We're still fairly busy for fire control. I mean, we'll burn up $40-50 million worth of stuff. We see three or four working fires a day.

And a fire is still a big deal with all of our fire departments, that's the highest priority. When I say that we're a social service that goes to a fire or an EMS event, it doesn't mean that that's the priority for the system. It's just that that's the frequency of it when you look at it.

But, no, we are very much a fire department. We do more and more fire training. We do more and more command training. We're in the process of building a command training center. I could see in the future that you could do unscheduled care, and out-of-hospital care, with field units. I think there's a place for clinics in our fire stations. Last year, we did 17,000 inoculations for baby shots.

We're going out to the customers mostly with health fairs and different events. We go to very public places and immunize kids. We're probably the biggest immunization service in the state right now.

Firehouse: Are new stations on the drawing board?

Brunacini: Yeah, we have 10 stations that we're going to build in the next five years.

Firehouse: Are you well covered for now?

Brunacini: We need 20. Phoenix is still 500 square miles. We're putting together a project for those stations that would improve not only the bricks and mortar, but also the personnel, the training and the support services. It's a $91 million project.

Firehouse: You mentioned an idea for a chief officers academy and/or plans to train command officers.

Brunacini: There's a closed fire station that's in the process of being remodeled as a command officers training center.

Firehouse: Do you think that there's going to be anything new that people can utilize, add or adapt to command an operation in the future? You have your basics. Maybe you used to stay outside in the car, then you went to a command board, then you went inside a truck. Are there any things that you see coming right away that will change there, adapt it or make it better?

Brunacini: There's a project we are working on right now, called "Command Safety," that looks at the role of the IC (incident commander) in saving our own.

If you look at the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) reports (about investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths), the number-one cause of firefighter fatalities is a lack of incident command. Teaching firefighters to slide down ladders doesn't really help the command guy who's operating, or we hope is operating, on a strategic level.

We have developed in the last couple of years a safety section; in other words, the first section that we set up now is safety. We have five sections - administration, planning, logistics, information and now we have safety. And we think that is a command staff-level function that ought to be established as quickly as possible. We're assigning safety officers to sectors as a standard practice.

I mean, go back to 1710, and I am not beating that drum, but what 1710 attempts to do, and I think it does in a basic job, is to describe what is accepted good practice as far as deployment for structural firefighting, EMS and special operations.

It in no way attempts to describe the American fire service or the American local government's capability to provide that service. That's not what it's in place to do.

If you're in a situation you can't afford it, then to some extent that's your problem. It's not the problem of the standard. Not to be cavalier about somebody's ability to be able to meet that standard, but, in other words, that isn't what a standard attempts to do.

You've got to do what you can do, but the purpose of this standard is to say, this is accepted good practice - for a 1,500-square-foot, one-story, otherwise unremarkable single-family residence with a room-and-contents fire, you've got to send 15 firefighters. It's that simple. Well, out here in Mud Flap, we can only send seven. OK, you don't meet the standard.

In 1500 we said you can't ride on the back end of a fire truck anymore, you've got to be inside, seated and belted with a roof over you. There are no open-cab fire trucks at your show (Firehouse Expo). I walked all over and looked at it. I have to wait there for the parade to see those. They show up on Sunday. They're antiques.

You can disagree with it. A lot of people do. And that's fine. That's the way the system works.

Firehouse: Do you have any pet projects, things you think we should be doing?

Brunacini: I think that my pet projects basically have all emerged out of incident command, and they still do. I think customer service emerged out of incident management because leaving Mrs. Smith in her nightgown across the street from her burning house in the dark is not very good incident management.

Firehouse: In your mind, who is Mrs. Smith?

Brunacini: The person who is receiving our service.

The most important thing outside the fire department is that we save Mrs. Smith's life when she needs it. That's why she trusts us so much. The most important thing is that we save Firefighter Smith's life. That we have systems that are authentic, that they're practical, that they are effective causes Firefighter Smith to go home in the morning. It's the command safety thing.

Firehouse: How has all of your teaching and traveling benefitted you and the department?

Brunacini: It's been fascinating to me for years to go places and to learn the most unexpected things from the most unlikely people. After you do that a while, pretty soon you withhold judgment because you can go someplace that you think isn't a very refined kind of place, but if you shut up and pay attention to the people, they're doing some pretty neat stuff. Plus, what a terrific opportunity to get to be friends with the really nicest group of people on the planet.

Firehouse: Are there any other projects that you are going to enhance?

Brunacini: We have a system. We send workers. We don't fuss around. We go to work. We solve their problem. We send enough to do it. We have a command system and we have supervisors who come to manage that, and that's a pretty neat system, that's a pretty incredible capability.

In other words, we're not going to let somebody's house burn down while we're fooling around with a Dial-A-Ride, but does that system have the capacity to help that other service in the process?

We have 50 locations. The Humane Society has 900 volunteers. Could you license animals on Saturdays in your fire station if the volunteers came in? Sure. Would they like you for that? Sure. Do they vote? Sure. Would it hurt what you're doing now?

Firehouse: Have you taken customer service one step further?

Brunacini: There's a van out front that says Community Assistance Van. We have a bunch of these vans that run out of the fire stations. They go out on fire calls and EMS calls and they provide social services. If you're getting your master's degree in social work, these vans now represent the number-one internship now in the Southwest. The crews spend in some cases five, six, seven hours with a family after the event. What does the family remember?

Firehouse: A very positive image of the fire department.

Brunacini: Absolutely. So I think that's the future. I think it's collaboration. I think it's cooperation. I think it's making friends. I think it's us not losing sight of the mission, either. This drives some of our colleagues crazy. They say, oh, the guy is trying to be all things to all people. We all resist change. We've all been raised in it since we have been kids.

But you couldn't get a softer-hearted group of people, could you? You don't need to create anything, what you have to do is just authorize it. I'll say it's OK to do this. Then you celebrate it. Then you publicize it and you say these are kick-ass firefighters. These are guys that are in a lot of busy companies, downtown companies doing a lot of fire duty.

I mean, they're not social workers, but they do pretty good social work.