Firehouse® Interview: Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini

Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner interviews the man who has led the Phoenix Fire Department since 1978 and has become an international fire service leader.

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...

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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?