Administration and Leadership, Commentary, Communications & Dispatch, Operations

The Passing of a Legend, Hero, Mentor & Inspiration: Chief Alan Brunacini

The sudden, unexpected death of Alan “Bruno” Brunacini Sunday hit me like a ton of bricks as I am sure it did many of my colleagues in EMS and the fire service. He was one of those bigger than life leaders that you thought would live forever.

He presented the eulogy at the funeral of James O. Page, the founder of JEMS and one of his closest friends. He made us laugh at a time when we all wanted to cry. He showed us hope at a time of great despair, when we thought our world was hopelessly changed and empty. He told us that life must go on, and it will go on, because of the legacy Jim left behind and the principles he taught us.

As I reflect on Bruno’s death, I again have faith that we’ll be able to go on.

Friends and Mentors

I grew up admiring both Bruno and Jim. I never thought that either of them would become a friend and a mentor. The truth is, Jim and Bruno mentored anyone who was willing to be mentored.

They were both passionate about the same things: Safe, effective and efficient fire service operations and administration; high quality, professional EMS in the fire service—performed enthusiastically and as a major part of the job; doing whatever it took to meet the needs of the “customer,” even if it meant boarding up windows, replacing door locks that had been forced open to care for them, or cooking them a meal; and, perhaps most important, being fully transparent with elected officials and the public about the men and women who worked for them.

Both always acknowledged their errors and detailed them in professional journals like Fire Engineering and JEMS, where they would discuss what they were going to do to make sure outdated procedures were changed so that a specific tactical error never happened again.  

Incident Command Innovations

Bruno, the former chief of the Phoenix Fire Department, invented and improved upon countless aspects of our work.

Before Bruno, you rarely found a command officer in a fixed position—let alone at a designated, announced command post location.

As a young EMS director in Eastern Pennsylvania and the son of a fire captain, I knew how disorganized scenes could be. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, chiefs and company officers typically roamed the fire and rescue perimeter with a radio in their hand, and, quite often, they entered burning structures to direct attack operations. 

Bruno changed all that. He presented rational reasons why there needed to be a fixed Incident Command post location and then demanded that it be implemented in his department. His vision and persistence changed countless lives.

For many departments and federal government officials, the fateful and deadly events of 9/11 drove them to undertstand the need for a national, structured incident command system. However, those of us who respected and followed Bruno had known about and practiced Incident Command since 1980.

Alan Brunacini’s epic 1985 textbook Fire Command

Before Bruno, there were very few departments that deployed designated safety officers at scenes. There were no “two-in, two-out” safety backup teams, hit or miss air pack use and there certainly wasn’t any rehab for firefighters or other providers who worked under extreme conditions for extended periods of time. His epic 1985 book Fire Command sits front and center on my bookshelf because it was the bible for Incident Command.

Bruno’s Pearls of Wisdom

Early in my career, long before video series and internet offerings, I traveled great distances to hear the words of Alan Brunacini and experience the magic of his teaching, his personality and his humor. I often went to Bruno’s incident command and rehab sessions multiple times because he always added new pearls and techniques that I would pass along to anyone who would listen. 

There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t pick up his famous palm-sized Timeless Tactical Truths book to read, re-learn and laugh at the pearls of wisdom that he jotted down on napkins throughout his career. 

Alan Brunacini’s palm-sized Timeless Tactical Truths

A sample pearl of wisdom from Alan Brunacini’s Timeless Tactical Truths

As the son of a “B-Shifter,” I knew exactly what Bruno meant when he talked about the differences between the A, B, and C shifts. Bruno illustrated each shift’s unique personality, learning style and humor. More importantly, he taught us the common qualities that all responders possesed—and that needed to be leveraged in our organizations.

He once said, “Your people can dance to different drummers, but they all have to answer to the orchestra leader!”  

I related to his stories about “Mongo,” character he always wove into his presentations. Bruno said that there was always a Mongo on every shift. Mongo was the guy or girl who had to do things the basic, barbaric way: Ripping off car doors with their bare hands before the hydraulic tool was out of the compartment “just because.” 

Following the teachings and principles of Alan Brunacini helped me and hundreds of other followers make advancements our own departments. Usually, if I raised an idea, I was “just A.J.” presenting the concept. However, if I showed the board and my fellow officers how and why Bruno and the Phoenix Fire Department did it, people listened.

You see, Bruno had the ultimate “Street Cred.”

Re-Purposing an MICU

In 1989, I convinced my progressive colleagues at Bethlehem Township (Pa.) Volunteer Fire Company that we needed to keep and refurbish our 1975 GMC Motorhome (Transmode) MICU into a combined MICU, command and rehab unit.

With the blessing of Bruno and the Phoenix Fire Department, my plans mirrored theirs. I added radios and a rooftop, colored, remote-controlled camera linked to a video recorder/display; piped oxygen to small, outside cabinet positioned under a retractable awning and added extensive MCI supplies to the MICU. 

I remember seeing his state-of-the-art rehab vehicle in the 80s and asking him why it had such a large exhaust fan in the ceiling. With his Yogi Berra face and smile, he said, “Have you ever seen what our firefighters eat?”  Enough said, Bruno.

The Bruno-inspired BTVFC MICU-Command-REH unit.


Interior of the Bruno-Inspired BTVFC MICU-Command-REHAB unit.

Many years after my department sold the Unit 247 and it fell victim to time and modifications by two other owners, I found and purchased the unit, and I will take possession of it in November.

Like the “Enola Gay,” the famed bomber that changed the course of history, I decided this morning to name my new vehicle “Bruno” in his honor. It’s much better than “The God Awful Thing,” which was the name that my wife and Jim Page’s wife gave to my 7,200-pound Cadillac ambulance!

The JEMS & Phoenix Fire Department Philosophy

For those who never met Alan Brunacini or Jim Page, perhaps the best way to understand both is to understand the common philosophy they shared about people and their organizations. Developed by Bruno and the Phoenix Fire Department (PFD), and adapted for JEMS by Jim Page and Keith Griffiths, “The PFD Way” is one of the best.

The philosophy describes the way people should perform, behave, treat each other and interact, no matter what role they play within the organization. Some of the pearls of The JEMS Philosophy are:

  • The pathway to success for JEMS has been paved by steady vision, honesty, the hard work of dedicated and creative people and the response of thousands of loyal customers.
  • Traditionally people have been attracted to careers at JEMS because of our reputation as an exciting, dynamic source of excellence. We’re committed to excellence internally and externally.
  • We’re a close-knit team and proud of it. … The expectations and ideals this document articulates are based on the fundamental principle that our members (employees) are the foundation of the organization.
  • We’re comprised of people who have been selectively chosen for their respective roles and every member has to want to belong. If individuals choose to belong to the JEMS organization, there are expectations and standards of behavior that are not optional.
  • Being a member of the JEMS team is more than just a job. It includes a commitment to other JEMS members and to the people we serve (our customers).
  • Personal respect and individual integrity are essential ingredients of a positive, unified work environment and a healthy organization.
  • Loyalty is easy during good times but is severely tested during difficult times.
  • Our personnel are not just employees. We’re members. To be an exceptional team, members must take care of each other. The organization can’t do much better outside with our customers than we do inside with each other.
  • Leadership is critical in maintaining the high standards of performance and the positive image that our customers have come to expect from us. Leaders are always setting an example, whether intending to or not.
  • Organizational imperfections will always exist at JEMS. In fact, sometimes they can provide the clues we need to direct change and create improvements in what we do. Life is not perfect, and neither is JEMS.
  • It’s critical to remember that to be an exceptional team, everyone must take care of everyone else. Being nice to one another is absolutely required to sustain the level and quality of products and services that our customers expect and deserve.
  • Living this philosophy isn’t easy. As a matter of fact, it’s extremely difficult and requires constant, conscious effort on the part of all of us, each and every day.

Alan Brunacini was a “teddy bear.” We all respected him because we knew he walked the walk and could, if necessary, be as ferocious as a bear. But 99% of the time, his teachings, his brilliance, his personality and his humor made those of us who knew and loved him just want to go up and hug him.

Read “The Phoenix Way” and consider adopting it for your department. It’s timeless, as is Alan “Bruno” Brunacini. RIP Chief!