Farewell Chief Bruno and Thank You!

It was a Sunday night and I was attending a class. How appropriate that was. An alphabetical registration was occurring which allowed me time to check my phone for emails, etc. That’s when I first heard the news. Chief Alan Vincent Brunacini was gone. I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut. In my humble opinion, no one has ever had a greater influence on the fire service or my professional career than Chief Bruno. We will get back to me in a minute, but let’s first examine Bruno’s influence on the fire service. Bruno took the organizational management tricks in large wildland fires and adapted it for use at structure fires. The heavy emphasis on resource management, accountability and organization laid the groundwork for what are safer fire ground operations today. To be sure, our incident command systems in use today are skyscrapers that can be traced back to the foundation that Bruno built.

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Bruno did not stop there. He was one of the first to recognize that, “beyond about one and one-half sections of hose into the fire building, rapid intervention becomes not very rapid.” It was this revelation that led to training designed to prevent us from being trapped or lost. You see, Bruno was a visionary. He recognized that if we can prevent the lost, disoriented, and/or trapped firefighter, we do not need to use the rapid intervention teams to rescue them. This has had a direct effect on rescuing the rescuer and rapid intervention training today. Anyone who has taken one has learned just as many ways to prevent themselves from being trapped as they have to rescue others.

Perhaps most importantly, Chief Bruno was a proponent for those we serve, who were collectively referred to as “Mrs. Smith.” Bruno’s brilliance recognized that Mrs. Smith doesn’t relate to emergencies in the same way we do. In fact, when it comes to the technical parts of our job, Mrs. Smith doesn’t understand much. That is to say that Mrs. Smith’s perception is her reality and she does not know the difference between interior and exterior attack, an 18 or 16 gauge IV, or cardioversion versus defibrillation. This led to Bruno’s concept of customer service or the idea that our service delivery, which must be quick and effective, must also consider Mrs. Smith’s perspective. That, basically means this. We can burn Mrs. Smith’s house to the ground through the greatest series of tactical errors ever committed by a fire scene manager in the history of the fire service and if we are nice to her and make sure she is taken care of after the fire — stuff that she perceives as important — she will sing the fire service’s praises to all of her friends, family and the politicians that allocate monies. Conversely, if we hold Mrs. Smith’s fire to a room and contents through the most aggressive fire attack ever mounted in the history of the fire service — again, something that Mrs. Smith doesn’t understand — but then proceed to high five and chest bump each other in the front yard in celebratory fashion, she will likely perceive our triumphant actions as not taking the fact that she just lost everything that she owns very seriously. She may even think that we are celebrating her tragedy. Mrs. Smith’s perception matters.

While we have to be proficient in our problem-solving skills, like fire suppression and advanced life support, we also cannot forget that Mrs. Smith’s perception is not framed around our skill set. Instead, she cares about how we talk to her and how we treat her as a person. Yes, she recognizes when her problem is solved and when it is not, but she places more value on the things she understands — which does not really include the way by which we solve her problem. You can be the most technically competent firefighter/paramedic on the planet, you can fight fires and start IV’s like no one else in the world, but if you cannot talk to Mrs. Smith without making light of her problem or making her feel bad, you are not of value to her and are therefore a detriment to the fire service.

It was this revelation that changed me. It was appropriate that I learned of Chief Bruno’s death while sitting in a class, because that is where I first met him. I was convinced by a colleague to attend a seminar on customer service that he gave at the South Carolina Fire Academy. Prior to arriving for that weekend, I had been exposed to some officers that — what shall I write here — let’s just say some of their customer service needed some work. It was a simple story that Bruno offered that changed all of that.

He said one day while serving as the Phoenix Fire Chief, while riding with his boss ± an assistant city manager, he stopped at a red light behind one of his department’s engines. The sky was cloudy and rain was imminent. To the right, he spotted an elderly woman surrounded by brown grocery bags, sitting on a bench apparently waiting for a bus. Suddenly, the passenger side doors of the engine open, the firefighters grabbed the woman and her groceries, quickly load them in the engine and shut the doors of the apparatus, all before the light turned green. The city manager asked Chief Bruno, “What the heck are they doing?” Bruno replied, “Well, they probably know her. She probably lives in their response area and they are taking her home.” The city manager quickly snapped, “Well, what if they get dispatched to a fire.” Bruno quickly responded with, “Well, she’s probably never been to a fire before.” He went on to explain to the city manager that the same city that owns the fire engine that she was riding in also owns the bus that she was waiting to ride. The explanation was so simple, yet it is genius. I left the seminar with a profoundly new understanding of Mrs. Smith and what it takes to serve her. Prior to this seminar, I focused on honing my technical skills. I take nothing away from the importance of this. Just make sure you don’t forget about Mrs. Smith’s perception and what she values.

I continued to see Chief Bruno for many years to come at various conferences and always attended his seminars. I signed up for one and a colleague asked me what the topic was. I told him (truthfully), I don’t really know the topic. I also told him that I could listen to Chief Bruno sell insurance. He was a humble and caring servant who never stopped learning. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention his wife and family, who were kind enough to share him with all of us for the betterment of our service.

Let me leave you with my Top-10 of Chief Bruno’s Timeless Tactical Truths. While many of these appear to be humorous, they are simple recommendations that can be applied to many complex situations:

  1. Remember Mrs. Smith is not having an administrative experience when her kitchen is on fire — she is having an emotional one. Don’t speak to her in tactical language — emotional language is the only human communication she will understand, really hear or actually remember.
  2. Be careful of “nothing showing” situations — they can be the most potentially dangerous because this stage of the fire has the most space to change — we get inside (sometimes half asleep); critical things change quickly and “wham-o,” we are now in an offensive position under defensive conditions.
  3. Fires are meant to burn a certain (standard) length of time — offensive ones are pretty quick; defensive ones are generally slower. Just be patient, they all go out eventually.
  4. Be very careful of being in a tactical position where if any one thing goes wrong … you’re abruptly dead (Deep-sea diving, interior firefighting in high-hazard areas, sky diving, space shuttle re-entry, etc.).
  5. Sometimes the fire gets out of the original (inside) fire area and begins to visit exposures. If the “visit” extends to a significant number of exposed structures, we must then attempt to confine the fire to the neighborhood of origin.
  6. You had better be doing everything right when everything goes wrong.
  7. Be careful of reinforcing a dysfunctional position, particularly one that emerged out of freelancing … this can quickly turn into doing the wrong thing harder.
  8. Almost getting killed is a lot different from getting killed … but if that ongoing experience doesn’t cause a profound behavior change, you eventually will be.
  9. Be careful of the “disease of certainty.” Never is a long, long time, and always isn’t always.
  10. It is very painful to be challenged and lonely at the same time. When you’re having problems, take on a partner to share them.

Chief Bruno — God Speed Sir and rest easy. Thank you for the influences you have bestowed upon both me and our beloved fire service.

To the readers (as Chief Bruno would say) — “Please be safe and be nice.

Dr. David A. Greene has over 25 years of experience in the fire service and is currently the deputy chief with Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue. He holds a PhD in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University and an MBA degree from the University of South Carolina. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, holds Member Grade in the Institution of Fire Engineers, is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy and is a Nationally Registered Paramedic. He can be reached at dagreene@lowcountry.com.
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