Chief Alan Brunacini: The missing voice of reason in the fire service

How fire service leaders can continue the “be nice” messages of customer service


For over 40 years, the American fire service had a voice of reason, a fatherly figure that reminded us of the difference between right and wrong.

Chief Alan Brunacini provided us a vision for what the fire service should be. He taught us to BE NICE. He introduced us to Mrs. Smith. He guided us away from focusing on ourselves and re-focused us on them.

The hole he left behind

Chief Alan Brunacini provided us a vision for what the fire service should be. He taught us to BE NICE. He introduced us to Mrs. Smith. He guided us away from focusing on ourselves and re-focused us on them.
Chief Alan Brunacini provided us a vision for what the fire service should be. He taught us to BE NICE. He introduced us to Mrs. Smith. He guided us away from focusing on ourselves and re-focused us on them.

In June 2017, four months before his untimely death, I had the pleasure of driving Bruno to the airport after another invigorating weekend of leadership insights from “The Chief.” This wasn’t the first drive that Bruno and I took together. I wish I had known it would be my last.

As many can attest, spending time with Bruno re-energized why we are in the fire service. He had such a masterful way of seeing through the minutia and finding the value and nobility in the service we provide our community. Chief Brunacini influenced and impacted the American fire service in ways that we may never fully understand. His impact on fireground command, tactical decision-making and, of course, customer service is easily identified.

And now, as I reflect on today’s fire service, I recognize that Chief Brunacini’s absence has left many holes in our hearts and minds, but there’s one in particular that stands out – the voice of reason.

Reining in the ego-driven battles

If you have been around the fire service for a while, you know that trends come and go and what was once old is now new and what was new is now old. This has never been more apparent than with the explosion of the fire service into social media.

Today’s fire service is spotlighted via social media – in both good and bad ways. I find it interesting that with all the advancements of technology and how we utilize it in our day-to-day operations, we still find ourselves battling via social media. What’s more, we battle over image and ego instead of performance and service.

Chief B used to say, “Ego eats brains.”

There is a lot of wisdom in Bruno’s words. In a profession that prides itself on service, how does ego take center stage? How has it become vogue to highlight our image versus our service?

Now let’s face it, the fire service has always battled with each other on certain issues: East Coast vs. West Coast, smoothbore vs. combination nozzles, red vs. yellow engines and so on. But the question now becomes this: How do we maintain control of those battles so that they don’t hinder the growth and development for the future – and how do we do so without a voice of reason like Bruno to steer us in the right direction?

How to be a voice of reason for your crew

Bruno was our voice of reason. And now that voice must come from us. Fire service leaders must channel their inner Bruno and become the designated adult in the room. The designated adult who calls a spade a spade without being a jerk. The designated adult who refocuses our energy to the importance of Mrs. Smith instead of self.

How do you become a voice of reason?

Be present. Being present takes energy; you must interact, listen and see what is going on with your organization and your firefighters.

Don’t be afraid to take action and stop the misguided from influencing your organization. Reenergize the impact of service over self. Challenge the “why” in what we are doing. Ask the question, “Does what we are doing impact Mrs. Smith or does it just impact our image?” Take action on those items that are self-serving, speak up when appropriate to ask the challenging question. Bruno never told you what to do; he always asked that little question that made you rethink what you were doing. So take action by asking the right question.

Introduce your new members to Bruno. Provide a platform for your new members to read and study the legacy of Mrs. Smith and customer service in the fire service.

Lead by example, and model the impeccable commitment and dedication to customer service.

Utilize the philosophy “What would Bruno do?” This type of decision-making again allows you the opportunity refocus your decisions back to the customer, back to service.

Let’s face it, our communities don’t care what helmet we wear or what color our gear is, so let’s not make those items focal points of our organization. What our communities DO care about is the level of our service and the performance of our members. The statement “for them” has become a slogan of many organizations, and it’s true we are here for them, so let’s make all of what we do for them. Let’s embrace research and new technology and never lose sight of them.

Be nice! The concept sounds easy. Just be nice. Simple, right? Not so fast. It seems that members of our profession agree that being nice to Mr. and Mrs. Smith is an easily acceptable concept and is practiced throughout most of the American fire service. But the concept doesn’t stop at the customer; it extends to each other, our neighbors, our partners and our political body.

This is where the “be nice” concept gets blurred. “Be nice” was never defined as “Be weak.” Be nice was about respect, courtesy, caring and compassion – all traits that should be at the core of the fire service.

Where to go from here

For over 40 years, Chief Brunacini provided us a model for of how to live the true values of the fire service through his simple motto of “be nice.” Let’s all take the time to revisit his words of wisdom and get back to the basic principles of service and be present as the voice of reason.

The fire service continues to evolve, whether we want it to or not. The question becomes how do we listen to the past but grow the future. The chief’s passion for “be nice” is a good place to start.

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