He had his critics. He clashed with former assistant city manager Sheryl Sculley. She wanted control; he chafed under her attempts to get it.
And while Brunacini worked well with Pat Cantelme, who presided over the firefighters union for 20 years, he didn't dance quite so well with Cantelme's hand-picked successor, Billy Shields. Cantelme is all about the endgame; Shields is more mercurial. His feelings get hurt. And Bruno could be sarcastic.
For years, too, there were rumors of nepotism. Fire departments like Phoenix are full of familiar names and old high-school cliques; it seems that everyone who joins has an uncle or dad already in the business. All three Brunacini kids joined the Phoenix Fire Department, even daughter Candi -- and Candi's gender, if nothing else, gave the old-school guys something to gripe about. It didn't help that Nick Brunacini rose to deputy chief.
But people who took the time to investigate the situation concluded that it was nothing nefarious: Nick Brunacini is good at his work. Candi Brunacini, too, is a capable firefighter (See "Like Father, Like Daughter," by Jeremy Voas, August 25, 1993).
Under Brunacini, Phoenix earned a national reputation. It's so frequently praised, it's difficult to remember how lowly the city's fire department was, pre-Brunacini.
The old-timers haven't forgotten.
Tom Healy, chief of the Daisy Mountain Fire District that borders Phoenix's west side, came to work for Phoenix in 1970 after a run in California.
"We had shoddy equipment and not much training," Healy recalls. "I'd go visit my friends in California and they had nice shiny stuff. I'd think, 'Doggone it, it's embarrassing to say what department I'm from.' But it wasn't too long after Alan Brunacini became fire chief that you were proud to say you were from Phoenix."
In 2001, Alan Brunacini announced that he would retire in the summer of 2006.
Under the state's optional plan for safety workers, longtime firefighters who name their retirement date years in advance can add richly to their pension. The idea, says Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks, is to give experienced workers a reason to stay on the job. Setting the date in advance also helps the city plan for openings.
But when his personal D-Day grew closer, Brunacini began to have second thoughts. In the fall of 2005, he wrote Fairbanks to say he'd changed his mind. He wanted to stay.
By opting out of the program, Brunacini says, he'd lose $185,000 in retirement benefits.
But Bruno didn't care about the money. He just wanted to stay on as chief.
Fairbanks said no. In a November 2005 letter to Brunacini, Fairbanks wrote that the law department had concluded that Brunacini's chosen retirement date was "irrevocable."
As it turns out, the city could have gotten around the rules. Police Chief Jack Harris retired just after Brunacini, under the same system. But before Harris was out the door, the city announced that he'd be returning as an assistant city manager. Since it's a new job, Harris won't lose a cent of his pension.
Fairbanks says that the city's willingness to rehire the 57-year-old Harris was no slam on Brunacini. "Frankly, we didn't think of this in Bruno's case," he says.
So on July 31, 2006, Brunacini retired.
There was all the expected hoopla. Pat Cantelme, the former union president, gave Bruno an antique fire hydrant from Scotland. Chiefs from around the country praised him. Mayor Phil Gordon named Brunacini "fire chief emeritus," making it clear that he'd be there to lend a hand to his old department.
The city manager, after all, had chosen Bob Khan -- the man Brunacini had supported as his successor. This was the boy, now 48, who'd been best pals with Bruno's son Nick. This was the sixth plate at the Brunacini table for so many dinners.
As Bruno himself joked at his retirement party, when Khan first showed up at dinner, the chief asked his wife if he'd forgotten that he had an extra kid. Khan, he said, "looked like one of ours."
Over the years, Bruno told the hundreds in attendance, Khan had become like one of theirs, like family.