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Alan V. Brunacini

Fire Chief

After firefighters finished putting out an attic blaze in a house in Phoenix a few months ago, they went back to check that there were no smoldering embers. But before they took axes to the ceiling, they removed and covered the furniture to protect it.

Alan V. Brunacini
In Phoenix, firefighters are taught that firefighting is not just about pulling people out of burning buildings and saving the structures. Fire Chief Alan Brunacini believes in a gentle-hearted approach that takes into account the trauma of victims. In five words, his guiding principles are: "Prevent harm. Survive. Be nice."

Nice means sitting on the curb with "Mrs. Smith," as Brunacini calls his constituency, and looking at the event through her eyes. It may mean explaining to people about services to get them back on their feet. Or helping them to the van the department sends to fires, where a counselor waits with phone service, refreshments, a place to sit besides the sidewalk, and a solid shoulder for crying on. "More than anything else, act like a neighbor," says Brunacini, who is having fire trucks painted with the words, "Our family helping your family."

And that's how the chief views the 1,400 firefighters he commands--as family. (Three of them actually are: His two sons and daughter are all firefighters.) Training facilities are cutting-edge, and firefighters have their own fitness center and health clinic. Brunacini chooses to manage by emphasizing support of his people rather than control. "If they're comfortable and relaxed and treated well, they will be nice to Mrs. Smith out there in the field."

And why not have fun too? Firefighters are encouraged to explore their interests, whether it's becoming a bike medic or a public speaker. Some visit schools to lead songs about fire, seat-belt and bike safety. For awhile, there was a contingent of clowns on the force. "Firefighters are energetic kids, by and large," Brunacini says. "They didn't grow up. They still all want to be firefighters."

If it sounds like too much tenderness for the hard-headed world of firefighting, it should be pointed out that Brunacini knows his way around the business end of firefighting. Now 60, he's been "knocking down" fires in Phoenix since he was 21, reaching the rank of chief two decades ago.

In fact, Brunacini wrote the book on fire fighting. "Fire Command," which is used by many major fire departments, describes an orderly procedure for approaching a hazardous situation, from arriving and giving a cohesive description of the scene to breaking the incident into manageable pieces so it can be dealt with.

The Phoenix fire department has become a model not only for fire departments but for other public agencies. What distinguishes it from many others is that the "be nice" attitude extends to relations between union and management. That wasn't always the case. For years, there were bitter clashes between firefighters and city hall. Then Brunacini and Pat Cantelme, president of the local firefighters' union, pioneered a labor-management process that brings both sides together regularly. Five committees have been formed, each headed by an assistant fire chief and a union vice president. They look at issues such as fire operations, emergency medical services and human resources, and come up with key department policies and procedures.

Cantelme says the success of labor-management relations enabled the department to bid successfully against a private company for the city's ambulance service, and to go on to operate it profitably and well. He gives a lot of credit to Brunacini. "He's quite an extraordinary individual. He's as committed to the people providing the service as providing the service."

Ellen Perlman
Photo by Reed Rahn

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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