Live from fdic 2003: BRENNAN AND BRUNO

Chiefs Tom Brennan and Alan Brunacini en-lightened, challenged, amused, and maybe even shocked audience members during “Brennan and Bruno ‘Unplugged’ ” at the 2003 Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis. Following are summaries of some of their insights, experiences, exchanges, suggestions, and predictions.


[Editor’s note: The war in Iraq had just begun at the time of this meeting. Chiefs Brennan and Bruno included some assessments of the leadership styles of U.S. Army General Tommy Franks and U.S. Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks.]

Brennan: I don’t think there’s a lot of it left in the American fire service. I had a very simple leadership perspective. On my locker was Vince Lombardi’s speech [that contained the statement]: ‘Second-place games are losers playing losers for a losing trophy.’ The other was the three-word statement: ‘Ready, Fire, Aim.’ That was leadership.

Brunacini: I think one of the problems is that now it says: ‘Ready, Aim; Ready, Aim; Ready, Aim’ because it’s hard to get them to fire. And just an observation: I’ve noticed that managers, administrators, and bosses cause good things to happen. We do that with management. Leaders keep bad things from happening, because that’s where the pain is.

You can see how painful it is right now with all the military stuff that’s going on—and I’m not a political commentator at all, I just watch the news like everybody else. You have somebody standing up saying, ‘We’re not going to let bad things happen anymore in a particular place.’ Now, that’s obviously a lot more global than what we’re talking about, but it’s like trying to write standard operating procedures to correct messed-up fire operations.

Bosses straighten out messed-up fire operations. The only thing that will fix a messed-up fire operation is somebody who will take a leadership role. Inherently, those situations are difficult; they’re painful. You have to stand up straight and tall. In other words, they’re different. It’s a different compartment for organizational behavior. And if you haven’t had a lot of good models for that, today there are a lot of disincentives in it. Being politically correct, trying to understate everything—all logistic modern stuff rubs against that.

Brennan: I’m consistently knocked out by Generals Franks and Brooks. I would do anything to work with those two guys in this business. They know their job intimately. They know how to speak to their job. And as far as I am concerned, the people they were speaking to [during the television press briefings] were all city councilmen—I mean, the room was full of a lot of dopey questions.

Brunacini: That dumb, huh? I shouldn’t have said that. Why don’t you just send one truck to a false alarm?

Brennan: One what?

Brunacini: A guy asked us that once: ‘Why don’t you just send one truck to a false alarm?’ I said, ‘You know, you really should be involved in the government.’ I guess the question is, How did Brooks and Franks get like that? They didn’t just land that way. There’s some process that’s in place that caused that to occur.

Brennan: I think it’s kind of mandated. I don’t believe a lot of our top-end leaders today know the step-by-step process that they’re trying to lead around. And the payoff for that in negative terms is that they’re unable to market or defend the rank and file as it exists. Talk about rescuing firefighters is repulsive to me, because tactics keep firefighters from having to be rescued. I went to 30,000 fires, I think. I don’t ever remember rescuing a firefighter. I remember helping one out by gravity ….

I think the answer for the Franks and Brooks role is that these guys obviously know their job from the bottom up. I mean, when was the last time those guys had a war? It shows you that you don’t have to have a war every day to be a great leader.

Brunacini: It’s amazing how global their knowledge of what’s going on is. When they answer a question, you can see how much they understand of the whole dynamic. They talk about political things. They talk about sociological things. They’re not afraid to talk about the spirit.

What creates the capability to be able to react as effectively as these two generals do and to represent what they do so well? I don’t think it’s voodoo.

Obviously, there are people who have that inclination. They’re articulate and intelligent and so on. But I think that’s the case probably with most of the young firefighters we have. So maybe there’s a challenge there for us to ask how we can create those capabilities.

Brennan: You’ve got to create an atmosphere that will allow the firefighter to evolve. I can remember some of the basic stuff that I wish I was smart enough to write down. But when I was trying to make or was told to make decisions in the early times of my career, what I really did was try to think of who impressed me. Who did I work with that impressed me enough to lead me to say, ‘If I’m ever faced with that, I’m going to try to do the same thing?’ And then there was the down-to-earth broken rubber band that I would never want to do anything about. So I would shun any situation he was involved with and do the opposite of what he would do. So that’s how it started. I just wish I wrote [those things] down.

The second thing is the confusion over management. I even see it in the books today. In the program, there are a couple of management courses, but they’re really talking about leadership. And, management is management, you know. But leadership is getting things done and, like you [Alan] say, preventing things from being done. Driving success through the efforts of others is really what it is. And I think it’s our job, or at least it was my job, to leave a lot of room for the younger people with whom we work to make decisions and to talk about them.

Brunacini: I think an interesting dimension to leadership is that leaders are high-maintenance people. Sometimes, there’s a lot of wear and tear on the people around leaders. An interesting question, I think, for all of us, for any organization, is, How much leadership can we handle?

Brennan: I have to differ with you. I think good leadership is standing in the background and watching the system run very well.

Brunacini: That’s a very sophisticated definition of leadership. But General Patton probably wore out his aides, his adjutants, fairly regularly. There are a lot of high-energy leaders.

I think you’re right. In the fire service, the best leaders are probably the quiet individuals who are very selective in how they exert themselves, but I think all of us have worked around high-energy leaders. Boy, at the end of the day, you can be pretty tired! I don’t mean that critically, just descriptively.

Brennan: I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I think unless you get started, it’s going to be high maintenance forever. One of the things we did at every situation we ever had was run a critique, where each person believed that whatever he said was okay. And if nobody knew what he was talking about, we all went and looked at it. Well, we did that 22 times on Monday, 14 times on Tuesday. Eventually, not only did that run itself, but each of the team members (if I give you the number of how many team members we had, you’d probably throw stones at me) would be able to pick out by themselves what could have been done better. I think I had six leaders then; if I fell down, nothing was going to go wrong with that operation … I think.

Brunacini: The other day I went to a critique of a second-alarm fire in a commercial building; it was a defensive fire almost immediately. The first incident commander was a young firefighter. It was his first shift as a company officer. About four o’clock that morning on his first shift he’s the first company on the scene by maybe four or five minutes, at this 15,000- to 20,000-square-foot party store. The building was unsprinklered and fairly modern looking, but we burned up every party hat in North America that night.

The young company officer gets there and does the usual routine: lays a supply line, pulls some attack lines, forces entry, gets inside. He has a thermal imaging camera, and he shoots the attic. He says, ‘It just lit up’. He says, ‘The attic is damn near fully involved.’ Well, he’s a bright young guy; he says there’s no future in this.

When I arrived at his critique—they have a combination, these high-tech characters, of video and radio traffic—the only seat open was next to this young man. I don’t think he was completely prepared to have the fire chief sitting next to him on the first critique of his incident command. He kind of looked at me a little; he was very polite about it. I’m just sitting there, just taking it all in. They had the radio transmission in which he said, ‘We have a fully involved attic; we’re abandoning the building. This is a defensive situation.’ He struck another alarm. And it sounded as if he’d been a battalion chief for about 40 years.

Well, when they played the tape where he said, ‘We’re abandoning the building,’ he kind of looked at me. I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know if this is leadership or not, but I had a pad of paper, and I wrote three words. The first word was a vulgar word; the next two were ‘the building’ ….

Everybody went home after the fire. It was interesting, because when I stood in front of him—he was sort of distracted with all the different things going on—and he looked at that paper, he gave a heavy sigh. When we were finished, he asked if he could have that piece of paper. So I’m not sure where it’ll show up.


Brunacini: We really don’t have a whole lot of places to send officers for training. Maybe we need a little general school; we’ve been talking about that for years in Phoenix. Maybe we need a school where we can send guys and groom them. But I think the best answer is to have good people to mentor, good people to emulate.

Brennan: The thing I see now when I go around—I’ve been going around a lot since the beginning of the ’80s—is I don’t find a lot of company officers. I find company officers by title and by W2 form. But I don’t find company officers who are stepping up to do what really is fun in this business, to carry the ball on the learning curve at the very base of what we’re doing—and to do it often and regularly.

I remember when I was in Waterbury—and I’m not into rank and I’m not into anything other than lesson—everybody was by first name, the deputy, the captain. We started a rescue company. I told the four guys chosen for the company that they were not to tolerate being called by anything but their rank, because they would never get a chance to step out or to think they could step out …. Especially in a rescue company where we’re talking about confined space, water operations, collapse operations … we don’t want a discussion between Ralph and Frank and Jim. We need a leader who’s going to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do. Do that, do this.’ And it’s going to be over.

I would like to see more company-level commitment to performance excellence. If you’re going to a lot of structure fires, let’s talk about that. If you’re going to anything else, let’s talk about that. I don’t care what it is.

Brunacini: Somebody who visited Phoenix said the only way you can tell the rank of a command officer in Phoenix is by the size of the hibiscus on the shirt. It is very hot there; we’re very informal. I think that is a style. And we probably use first names more than most of the larger fire departments. I noticed that the troops are pretty smart characters; they know what to call you in a particular situation.

Brennan: I agree with that. But some of these systems don’t let the new leader have a chance to step out. You know what I mean?

Some Examples of Officers

Brunacini: When I was a young firefighter, I worked in a fire company in a fire station that was on the edge of a battalion. If we turned right, we went to the first battalion. If we turned left, we went around the corner to the second battalion. These two battalion chiefs with whom we worked on our shift were completely the opposite. If you went to the first battalion, it was like going to a free enterprise rodeo. The battalion chief was a nice man, smart, and a good fire officer. The only thing that messed him up was a fire. He went crazy. The guy went nuts! He really did. Nice man. You’d lend him your lawn mower, but you didn’t want him running your fire.

When we turned left, we got the second battalion. The chief was a younger guy, and he used to lean against the hood of his car. He opened the door of his car and pulled out his microphone—we didn’t have portable radios then—and hung it over his spotlight. He smoked a pipe. I never heard him raise his voice. The guy was calm, smart, and a clinical chemist. You couldn’t rattle him. He always knew what to say.

It was an interesting contrast because it was so remarkably opposite, turning right and turning left. You had to make a conscious acknowledgment of which battalion you were in—you know, at three o’clock in the morning when you’re about half asleep and you’re hanging off the back of the truck.

But it was interesting to see how much personal capability they had in those days, particularly because we really did not have very much training for a commanding officer. In other words, it was hard for them to outperform what they personally brought to their jobs. For a lot of the programs we developed, we used the guy in the second battalion as a model.

And I always tell this story. I got promoted in that system. In one night, I was a captain. This guy in the second battalion always knew what to say. He was the most amazing guy as far as being articulate, particularly on the radio. We were going to a structural fire, and we caught up with him. We were right behind the guy, and you could see you had a working fire in something. We turned the corner. There was this big outhouse burning. I said now, how the heck is he going to report this? He gave the best initial radio report I had ever heard. He came on the radio, and said, ‘Second battalion’s on the scene; we’ve a working fire in a small building with a basement.’

When you were a kid in that system, you said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like that guy.’

I think we need to do a better job of packing up, bottling, and distributing in a lot of different ways and places and systems the ability to emulate those characters. In other words, when you listen to those guys that you mentioned—the generals on television—I think they become the models. Sadly, we’ve all been trained in some negative ways that led us to say, almost by exception, ‘If I ever get in that position, I’ll never do that.’ There probably always will be some of that. But I think for a lot of us—I hate to say this, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the past—there was probably a lot more negative stuff than these models. These model characters, mostly guys in those days, were pretty unusual.

Brennan: We just don’t see that anymore. We don’t know whether they don’t know or whether they’re scared, or both. The type of leadership I see missing—and if it’s missing here, it’ll never be at the other end in 20 years—is what you [Chief Brunacini] described in going out of the station to two different battalions. We had situations where you would go out with five different battalions. Where was the leadership? Each one had a different role. We had an old crotchety guy with suspenders. We had another guy who wanted your boots up. We had another guy in the building looking. But what didn’t change was the leading act of what that unit did on arrival based on what they practiced through their leadership. The main incident command function did not affect the leadership of that unit to the point that the members were confused. And that’s good leadership, in my opinion.

Now the flip side of that was up in Harlem. I was in a truck company in Harlem, and we had the same situation. There was a building fire downtown, down the hill from Harlem. It was a six-story walkup, a rack of tenements, and it was burning. We knew we were going to get called. We were listening to the radio. And I knew the chief from where I formerly worked. I stepped out and said, ‘All right, listen guys, we work very well together. We’re going to go down there, and there’s going to be a confrontation with this guy. I know it. I’m going to handle it. I don’t want you to handle it. You just watch me. You know, we’re going to be third or fourth, so I’m going to split you. You’re going to split. Just watch me.’

Sure enough, we go down. This guy comes over. My guys are moving. They’re looking at me, and they’re moving. The fire is roaring through the shaft. And he’s going, ‘All right, Tom, where are your men going?’

I said, ‘Well, we’re going to split here for the shaft fire. It looks like ….’

He said, ‘Well, do we know what building the fire’s in?’

So now my guys are looking at me.

I said, ‘There are four leaking hose butts going in that set of stairs, and there’s one going up the side of this building, so I assume it’s here. And these two may be the exposures.’

While I’m talking, a firefighter runs out of the building and he goes, ‘It’s in the other building!’

We were the only firefighters he had that could shift to the other fire roof. So we went over to the back.

I asked my guys, ‘Has anybody got anything to say?’

One guy says, ‘Yeah, what’s so bad about that guy?’

Brunacini: A broken clock is right twice a day.


Brunacini: We don’t go into biker bars. We say, ‘Bring them [the patients] out.’ [In Phoenix], we [the police and the fire department] are joined at the hips. [If] we need to visit a bar, [the issue is that] we basically do not have any offensive or defensive capability to defend ourselves. Our response and the way we operate presuppose a friendly reception when we get to the other end. I think the only thing we can do in those situations, if we’re serious about the welfare of our people, is simply stage for the cops. And, honestly, when you have a bunch of demonstrators setting buildings on fire, that’s not a fire event: That’s a crime scene, and we work for the cops.

If we don’t have those systems in place and practice them, if we don’t know each other and deal with each other all the time, that is a very, very awkward thing for us to do. In Phoenix, we can talk on police channels; they can talk on ours, and they cross-pollinate, and so on.

If somebody wants to get us, all they have to do is say, ‘There’s something going down at Fifth and Don’t Walk.’ Here we come. We ask you, Where are you and what’s the matter? So, if somebody wants to knock us off, we’re the vulnerable service on the planet.

And if you hang out with the people from Israel and Ireland—I’ll just use those two examples—they have different operational procedures than we do. And in some of the places, they have an officer, a driver, two firefighters, and three soldiers with automatic weapons. I hope we don’t get to that. They do that certainly not because they want to but because of the operational situations in which they engage. We ought to have those plans in place. I don’t mean to be overly cautious or pessimistic, but they ought to be in place right now if you look at what’s going on out there in the world.

Where you don’t have any kind of operational or other type of relationship between the police department and the fire department, they’re coming from behind that power curve, and that’s a tough deal. We have put together a group of police officers and firefighters who are together physically in the same place doing homeland security planning. The second day they were in business, they were actually absolutely overwhelmed. There’s that much activity going on now.

We talk about weapons of mass destruction. Every fire department represented in this room responds routinely on weapons of local destruction. I mean, on Friday and Saturday night when the knife and gun club is out, your medics are out in the street. They’re dealing with the cops.

If you don’t have that system between those two agencies in place, and if it isn’t pretty transparent, I think that that’s a situation you ought to be really careful of right now. Again, if you have people setting buildings on fire, in a way, that’s war—I mean, that’s a little piece of wartime stuff. We are very much a peacetime service; we’re not suspicious of the community. It’s the reason the community trusts us so much—they let us in, and we go in. That’s the strength of the American fire service, and I don’t think we ought to change that. But, we need to be more careful today than ever before.

Brennan: What we were just talking about is not the situation that was around, at least on the East Coast, in the ’60s and ’70s. And I don’t know if there was a choice …. Our exposures were all around the fire that was started. In those days, everything was arson—99.something percent of the fires were set. That was the way of life, and you didn’t have a choice. The miscreants were causing problems on the streets by throwing things, and people who were severely exposed and could die were waiting for you to help them. I wish we could have sat back and maintained a posture, but it was every day. So we knew some tricks. But I know I don’t want to go there.

I think what we’re talking about is 100-percent correct. You don’t have hostile crowds by nature every day anymore, but you have hostile situations that arise, such as militant groups on the environment and now on the war situation. I have to go with that [what Chief Brunacini said].


Brennan: We’re getting worse. We have been killing and injuring the same number of people every year, at least since I know anything about the fire service. And the only thing we’re doing now is that we’re going to from 40 percent to 50 percent fewer incidents than before.

The next thing is that in our day and the day that [Chief Brunacini] described, when we were going out with two battalions, we were running around with baloney skins for turnout clothes and some Sears blue pants. Now, we have highly protective gear.

I believe we are causing or allowing the deaths of firefighters at an alarmingly greater rate than ever before. We’re killing and injuring more people who are better protected than at any time in our history, and who are going to fewer fires. I think the answer is in tactics. We just don’t make the building behave.

Brunacini: I don’t know if we have the organizational capability in the fire service in general to teach a tactical level of proficiency to solve the problem tactically. What a really experienced, skillful guy like Salka [Battalion Chief John Salka, Fire Department of New York] says is absolutely true: If you can create a high level of tactical sophistication operationally, you will tend to, let me call it, bulletproof those members in the way they operate on the fireground. If you look at the fire service across the board, there are very, very few systems that have the capability, the resources, the curriculum, the schedule, and the time to do that. It’s not a very cheerful thing to say. So, what we end up with is firefighters who are in positions they do not have the skill to both operate in and extricate themselves from.

When [Chief Brennan] says that he went to 30,000 fires as a truck officer, there isn’t any truck company officer today that’s going to get to go to 30,000 fires. It’s just that simple. A lot of what he knows he learned at those 30,000 fires. So, it’s an interesting dilemma when we say that the way to solve this problem is to create and maintain a level of capability for which we don’t have the resources—let me say that broadly. In most of the American fire service, we don’t have the staffing to conduct standard offensive medium-term operations and to do any kind of task analysis and have resources to staff that. If we want to lower the number of firefighters killed every year, we have to change something.

I’m not speaking against sending firefighters to training. That’s why we’re here. That’s what this whole event and this adventure that we do every year together, thankfully and happily, is directed toward. I get out occasionally, too, and see how challenged most fire departments are to create and maintain that level of capability. Now, as [Chief Brennan] said, the frequency is going down and the hazards are going up. If you look at Btus and the other kinds of things studied by those who analyze fires, the fires aren’t getting any safer for us. It’s an interesting set of things that mounts against each other in this.

Brennan: Let’s go back. It’s not the 30,000 fires. The people I deal with every day in the classroom sessions constantly say, ‘But you don’t understand, Chief, we don’t go to that many fires anymore. We’re not going to get any experience.’ My answer to them is, ‘It doesn’t [matter] how many fires you go to. It’s what you do with the one you get.’

We had units all around us. Why was one unit world-class and one unit okay to show up? It was what they did with the same number of fires. It didn’t matter whether it was 10 or a thousand. You could go to one fire a thousand times or to a thousand fires one at a time. And those who go to a thousand fires one at a time are the ones who are going to learn something.

The synergistic end of what we were talking about is 100-percent correct. All these fire departments are challenged, but they’re challenged, in my opinion, because of the three or four things we talked about here. Fire departments are being led by so-called fire chiefs who don’t have a clue about the foundation they manage and the riskiest situation in which they can place their teams—an interior fire attack in an occupied structure.

When they are called on to market relative to staffing, they don’t have any idea of the interplay between all the tactics and task analyses and who does what to make sure everything’s okay. So now we don’t have the people. Without the people, we don’t have a company officer who can evolve to task analysis; task training; task interrelationships; and, certainly, task differentials, especially in the truck functions. It’s a mess, and the mess identifies itself, in my opinion, in burn centers and burn units. I mean, with the baloney skins and all the fires, we didn’t have any burn units and burn centers. We now have flashovers, rollovers, smoke explosions. We have people who are yahoos running around with little logos on their shirts believing they were in two backdrafts that day. The buildings are completely misbehaving and trapping our firefighters.

It’s a simple process that needs a pretty healthy compound answer, which is NFPA 1710 and 1720. Many of you don’t know all the work that Chief Brunacini did over the years. He spent years and years pushing NFPA 1500 and years and years of pushing NFPA 1710 and 1720. I was the first guy to say this is our answer. The addendum to NFPA 1500 was the answer to the baloney stuff about staffing in the United States. And everybody was against it. When Chief Brunacini asked what I thought of NFPA 1710, I said it was like a rehashing of the NFPA 1500 addendum. He said, ‘Yeah, but they’re not paying attention to the other one.’

Lo and behold, I ran into a bevy of fire chiefs in different states who stated proudly that they were going to Anaheim to vote down NFPA 1710. This is the leadership of our business. In one case, in Florida, I asked this [chief], ‘Why are you doing that?’

He said, ‘Nobody’s going to tell me how many people have to be on my fire truck.’

I said, ‘How many do you have on your engines?’

He said, ‘One has three, and the others have two.’

I said, ‘Oh, you’re a wizard. You probably can do anything you want with those guys.’

Brunacini: But if we were—forgive me for being mathematical—going to take fire stages 1 to 10, Nothing Showing to Burned Down, given what we’ve said here, there are probably many fire departments that should not take on an offensive situation that’s more than a 3.5. Salka can take them on to 6, because of experience, resources, thought, capability, system, and so on. The hardest thing for us to do in the fire service is try to tell firefighters they can’t do something. This is one of the reasons we end up in discussions about losing 110 firefighters every year: Historically and traditionally and habitually, if we send out six or seven firefighters to a tactical situation that really needs 14 or 15, we don’t say, ‘Okay, you can do—let me be simplistic mathematically—about half of a standard offensive fire attack because that’s what you have [resources for]’. Instead, those six or seven firefighters will try to do exactly what 15 firefighters would do.

As managers and bosses and leaders or whatever we call ourselves, we do not have the skill, experience, background, inclination—forgive me—courage to stand up in front of the body politic and say, ‘If you give me three on one truck and two on the two other trucks, this is what I can do and this is what I can’t do with seven firefighters. Any fire beyond this point is going to be a defensive fire, and we’re going to try to confine it to that fire area.’ It’s just that simple, too. But it’s a lot easier to sit up here and blab about it than it is to actually go out locally and do that.

The same thing happens with us or without us. As I’ve watched defensive fires through the years, some fires are defensive when we get there; some are defensive after we’ve operated on them in an offensive kind of way. When they become defensive, they all do the same thing: burn up every bit of combustibles, typically at least, in that fire area. If you have firefighters inside killed by the fire, the building still burns down. It happened in Phoenix March 14 two years ago. When that building reaches a certain point—and we can argue about what we should have done or should not have done or whatever—but when it reaches that point, it is going to burn down. You shove it off in the ocean, it’s going to burn down.

See, we will argue about the 3.5 to the 5.8 and say if we were just better trained and did better air management and were more skillful on the task level, then we could protect that person’s property within the framework of our obligation to act. We say we will not risk a firefighter’s life for just a piece of property. Every fire department in this room, including the one I come from, does that routinely. We searched it, we have an all clear, but the IC typically and habitually does not say, ‘I have to replay the risk management plan. It’s high risk. All I’m doing is protecting property. Get out of Dodge.’ And the problem is the peer focus we have on the task level of operation. I’ve said it before, [the officer] has to go back to the station and have dinner with them.

There are a few people who did that. The guy I spoke about earlier—when you turned left—did it. In fact, and he never raised his voice, he told me one night: ‘Alan, oh boy, if you ever do that again, I’m going to kill you. I’m going to cut you up, and I’m going to bury you in the desert.’

I said, ‘No [kidding]!’

And he never raised his voice. He said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ I did some incredibly stupid thing. He didn’t stutter. I don’t think he was worried about dinner.

Until we have incident commanders who will say whenever, wherever, however, whatever’s going on, ‘Get out of that building. This is what it says on my card, on my sun visor, and that’s what we’re doing tonight. Now, get out of there, go get a candy bar in rehab. Set up some master streams, put lights behind them (you get good newspaper pictures).’ The next morning, everybody goes home. That’s leadership behavior.

We will free enterprise ourselves into a building. It is almost impossible to freelance yourself out of a building in any organized way. And, we don’t do U-turns well. It is difficult for us to reverse ourselves tactically, and we’re starting to struggle with that.

One chief of operations did a whole series of drills, probably 50 or 60 drills, on going from offensive to defensive—here’s how we go from offensive to defensive. If we want people to do things, we should train them to do it.

Brennan: The point is, when you say let’s get out of the building and you make that decision, that’s an incident command, whether it’s the very lowest level there is on arrival or the highest level. It doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s done. Maintaining offensive tactics at a defensive fire operation subjects firefighters to injuries. There are buildings that will enable you to say, ‘This is defensive.’

The problem I see sometimes is a Cape Cod structure, center staircase in a front door. Cape Cods are typical. They are identifiable. They have dormers. They split left and right on the second floor. They are small buildings. This Cape Cod exploded in a flashover smoke manner during operations. Now, this is the type of structure in which we expect that people are living or could be living and one in which we would mount an interior fire attack. My position is, Why are these buildings exploding in a situation where we cannot make a decision to stay outside based on everything we know from our rapid fire size-up—two doorbells, it’s 2 a.m., a bicycle is on the stoop, three cars are in the driveway? Why did that building explode? Because the people arriving on the scene did not put together the proper simple tactics.

Two things caused the explosion: (1) not enough people are at the scene or the company officer is not really in control of a policy of tactical responsibility, depending on size-up; and (2) it’s certainly not marketed from the department, which is what we’re really talking about.

I talked to truck officers of a major department, which has a lot of trucks. I asked, ‘What do you do on the fireground?’

One guy said, ‘I make a 360.’

I gave him a three-story, flat-roof apartment house, multiple dwelling and asked, ‘What do you do?’

He said, ‘Sometimes I go to the roof with the vertical venting, so I could see the other three sides.’

I don’t know how the rest of the country feels about this, but I was appalled. I almost couldn’t go any further, because if I had company officers believing that that’s how to function on a fireground and make decisions, and who do not know how to use a less than adequate number of people as effectively as possible, it’s a losing battle. How did they get there? How did they get to that point?

Brunacini: They did not connect standard conditions with standard actions with a standard outcome.

Brennan: Who didn’t? That’s my point.

Brunacini: Operatively, the people who showed up, for whatever reason, were not behaviorally prepared or equipped or trained or persuaded to first of all understand it and then behave within the context of what’s accepted with those conditions. In those conditions, they were not the correct tactical actions.

Brennan: I’m saying in a building that was not strategically abused, where an interior firefight is in progress, a company officer should be able to decide immediately what was not done properly to allow the ceiling to blow down in the exposure apartment. The only way it could blow down is if there is no opening in the roof.

Brunacini: Ventilation.

Brennan: You could go on and on and on about it. So that’s what I see. I’d like to see that changed. We have to do it from the bottom up. Regarding firefighter deaths and injuries, maybe we should look at the tasks or tactics: What tactics have to be in place here? Who’s going to do them, and where am I getting the people to do them? What’s the risk analysis of not being able to do this task for a certain amount of time?

Brunacini: If for whatever reason we can’t do that, what should we do?

Brennan: You have to change the strategy. You have to be prepared for disaster. The timeframe is going to whittle down. Your clock is going to be thrown out the window.


Brunacini: Do you see in your travels—forgive me for asking this in such an open kind of way—fire departments that should not operate offensively?

Brennan: Yes.

Brunacini: That doesn’t feel very good for any of us, does it? What do departments do in such situations?

Brunacini: I think every fire department has places where it’s almost impossible to create enough resources quickly enough during offensive periods to do offensive operations. On the other end of that scale, there are probably some fire departments that are very small and don’t have a lot of resources that probably should not go beyond the initial stages and put themselves into a deep-seated hazard zone. We don’t even like to talk about it. There needs to be a risk-management plan developed inside that system that enables a department to look around and say, ‘That’s not an offensive situation for us.’

We need to have a discussion about our capability to go into a hazard zone based on a local snapshot of the system we have in place, the resources. Some volunteer fire departments in this country scratch the calls during the day. I’m not being critical of them. It’s something we all need to develop locally and build into our system. And we need to have bosses who are prepared to say, ‘We’re going to go here; we’re not going to go there.’ I wasn’t being disrespectful of any fire department, because it would certainly apply to mine. There are places where we say, ‘Time out. We aren’t going into that hazard zone.’ Why? Because we aren’t going to come out.

There’s a minimum staffing, equipment, tool system level we need to become more realistic about. But historically, as I said, you send four firefighters out and they’ll do what 20 firefighters ought to be doing. We have to come to grips with that. It’s a lot easier for the system to let us do that. As bosses, we don’t have a lot of skill in standing up and simply saying, ‘We can’t do that.’ We’re very uncomfortable with that in our business because of the way we’ve been raised. We’re used to saying, ‘Mr. Can’t Do doesn’t live here.’ That’s the greatest spirit. I don’t want to change that spirit. But when that spirit hurts us and kills us, that’s dysfunctional. Maybe this is one of the new leadership issues for us.

Clearly, we ought to increase our capability. We ought to be more offensive. We ought to keep our promise to Mrs. Smith. I’m not saying that when a drop of water hits us on the helmet we ought to bail out. But—let me blame somebody here—the politicians have put us in a position in which there’s work we can’t do. We don’t have the resources to do it in a lot of places. Chief Brennan said it: When going through this 1710 adventure, where was the problem? The most resistance to 1710 was from fire chiefs.

Brennan: Might as well call a spade a spade. Scared fire chiefs who were told how to do their business by people who shouldn’t have been holding their shoes.

Brunacini: I’ve had fire chiefs ask me, and I’m not being heroic here, ‘How could you talk to those city managers like that?’

I asked, ‘How did I talk to them?’

‘Well, you just spoke to them.’

I asked, ‘You know what ICMA means?’

‘No, what?’

‘I Can Manage Anything.’

Brennan: It’s up to the chief to learn the language, but he’s got to be able to speak to them.

Brunacini: We need General Brooks telling our story here.

Brennan: The thing is not to get defensive about that statement. We all should be able to analyze it and say this is or is not my department and that at least some other people are talking my language.

I’ve had some 40 years in volunteer service in a shore community on Long Island. We had eight engines, a truck, a rescue, and a light truck. If you had a structure fire in a dead-end street in a shore community, the eight engines would go, and then the light truck in a daytime fire, the rescue truck, and then somebody who was too old to walk took the truck company. Now, there’s a whole department that shouldn’t be doing interior structure firefighting. There were no extinguishing support functions.

In talking with other big departments, if I ask, ‘Are you able to mount a team search?’ I have not been able to get a good answer. If they are unable to find the rope, to find the personal ropes, to find the communication techniques, to find the search practice techniques, to realize when it’s necessary in an instant—then that department has no right to go into that maze-like construction they call a commercial building. And yet, we still do that. That unit has no right doing interior structure firefighting unless it can keep its firefighters from getting lost.

So it could be a tactical thing, a company, or a leadership thing. It’s a who-are-we, what’s-our-real-business kind of a thing. It’s an identification of where we are and what’s happening to us and how we can we fix it.

[We should not have to rescue firefighters.] The building should be performing in such a manner that the firefighter is making calculated risk-oriented decisions intelligently based on all the things that we hold dear in the fire service—from courage to skill to responsibility. There should be no surprises, [somebody throwing propane in the window on you maybe]. But, collapse should never be a surprise on the fireground. I’ll give you 45 reasons for the building’s coming down, and you’re going to be surprised?


Brennan: I think if we’re not stupid, they’re good. We killed some people in buildings. If you read the reports, it’s really stupid. I’ve seen some really smart things done, and the NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] came out with a standard that’s pretty good as far as preparing the buildings, to assault it in a safe manner regardless of what could happen in the out-of-control fire situation. I saw a live burn in Sacramento [FDIC West]. They put flaps in the peak roofs [of the acquired structure] and ran the line over; it was wonderful. It was one story. If anything happened inside, they just had to pull this flap, the flue to the fireplace would open and the situation would be controlled.

[Regarding improving tactics] here’s what I would do. We had a lot of acquired buildings [in New York City]. We had hundreds of four-, five-, and six-story buildings that were vacant. We could do anything we wanted with them. So we cut roofs, we tore up floors. But the thing is that they are not used enough now. It seems as though they want to set a fire when they get an acquired structure. They should be doing two days of trimming windows, two days of cutting floors, two days of cutting roofs, two days of overhauling situations, two days of search tactics, and then burn it. Probably the best lessons were learned before the burn.

Brunacini: For the past two years, we trained mostly in vacant commercial buildings. No fires were set in them. We have invented and used props for simulations of forcible entry and ventilation without hurting the building. The props are on the building. We’ve done literally hundreds of drills inside these commercial buildings in a setting that provides an educational experience much different from that acquired in that 30 2 30 foot, six-story reinforced concrete building with two standpipes and two stairways in which we’ve been practicing for 50 years. The only problem is that there aren’t many drill towers out in town that are burning.

We had a whole different set of experiences going into these commercial places that very, very quickly outperformed most of our residential systems. We use a tint on SCBA facepieces. They are serious drills. I think Phoenix is probably just typical. We trained for years on the outside of commercial buildings; we still do. On Sunday mornings, we would get a half dozen companies and lay supply lines, set up master streams, and put up ladder pipes. But we never went inside the buildings. When we got inside those commercial buildings, we discovered that we really did not have a very refined offensive commercial firefighting plan. And again, I think we were just typical.

As [Chief Brennan] said, our service in the past few years has done some really stupid things when burning buildings. To put it bluntly, they’re now criminal, which is sad. The answer isn’t to put us in jail. What does that do for the cause?

If you follow NFPA 1403, the easiest thing to do is burn the building, and a lot of you do that. And that’s a fairly extensive preparation and operational thing when you use it, and it’s a big deal. And that’s what we ought to be doing if we’re going to do live-fire training in buildings.

Brennan: Most of our failures inside the envelope have been prior to the fire’s getting us. You can learn a lot by giving three objectives to a handline at the time the firefighter gets to the front door with a 21/2-story interior staircase. That’s where we run into trouble.

I understand you’re one firefighter and an officer if you’re lucky. But how do two firefighters move that line through that situation and then have a second and a third objective? What does the outside ventilating operating truck guy do second? When does he go to the roof of a building and cut it, and when does he not? I could almost never get that answer. I ask people, ‘When do you take a saw off the truck, and when do you leave it?’

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the firefighter says. ‘If I have a vertical vent, I always take the saw.’

Not if you work for me. If you give a firefighter a saw and you have a fire on the first story of a five-story building, this guy’s going to be up there all day cutting that roof. You have to take the saw out of his hand.


Brunacini: These accidents are pretty much 100-percent preventable. If you want to reduce your accidents 85 percent both in frequency and severity, come to a complete stop when the light is red. Observe the speed limit. Come to a complete stop if you’re on the opposite side of the double yellow. Do the speed limit going through the intersection. The four rules are don’t hit, don’t get hit, don’t tip over, and don’t scare anybody inside or outside the truck. The problem is that we have a culture that loves to go fast. It’s not as much fun if you stop if the light’s red. We have struggled with this in Phoenix for the past 12 years. We’re doing better.

If you want a leadership deal, there’s one for you. And we can argue about what’s a tactical level to do offensive operations and how far can we go and what are we trained to and all that, and we should have that discussion. Responding to and returning from incidents is a no-brainer. There are people who are experts in driving safety that will train us, tell us, help us, advise us, consult with us. What they tell us is pretty simple. It’s slow down and stop at negative right of ways. The seat belt thing. A firefighter here on the West Coast in the past 90 days fell out of a fire truck. The returns are in on seat belts. I mean, 20 years ago we used to have people in the fire service say, ‘I don’t wear the seat belt because I want to be thrown clear.’ You all do it every day—go on incidents where people have been thrown clear. You stand a 40 times greater chance of being injured or killed if you’re thrown clear.

What is needed is for the boss to say, ‘Here are the rules’ and then beat people over the head—I don’t know how else to say this. When we see it, we must react to it. If I see a Phoenix fire truck not following the rules, if they’re going on a call, I don’t interrupt them. If they’re not going on a call, I call the shift commander and have him meet me at my office with the driving regulations. And we’ve had some interesting discussions. Most of the time, what they say when they walk in my office is, ‘Where were you?’ …. We can say, ‘Here are the driving rules’ and then—I call it ’10 and 10′: I’ve discovered it takes 10 seconds to say, ‘I have zero tolerance for something’; it takes about 10 years to actually achieve it. The reason for this is the way we drive is very cultural. We don’t sit around the station at dinnertime and say, ‘Boy, that was a really safe response, and I really had a good time when we enforced the code today, too.’ I don’t know what we do [other than] just stand up straight and tall and say, ‘You can’t.’ I’m not moralizing.

Within the past 180 days, a Phoenix ambulance hit a family—killed the mother and put the two kids in a coma. Now, if you don’t think that those two Phoenix firefighters were punished because they were the ones who treated her to begin with …. And there were some questions about the disposition of all the traffic signals. That’s the saddest thing we can do. The last thing those two kids wanted to do when they came on duty was kill a customer—I mean, just say it bluntly. So it’s fun to drive like a maniac until it isn’t fun …. But I don’t know what we do except have an SOP and the bosses have to start managing. We’re at the stage where we’re going to tell members of the Phoenix Fire Department: ‘It’s our truck; here’s how you’re going to drive it. The second time you probably aren’t going to work here anymore.’ And, I come from [one of the most tolerant fire departments on this planet]. We don’t say that to each other very much.

[The fire service] is inclined, when we see somebody doing something like that, to want to send them back to training. If you have a quiz, [it would go like this]: ‘What do you do if the light’s red?’ ‘Stop.’ ‘What do you do if the light’s green?’ ‘Go.’ ‘What do you do if the light’s yellow?’ ‘Go faster.’ See, we know! [This would be like] sending them to training to ask, What part of ‘stop if the light’s red’ don’t you understand?

We’re doing awareness training. We’re doing procedure training, technique training, simulated training, just like everybody else. But at some point, you have to say this, ‘If you’re going to fly our airplane, you’re going to checklist it before you take off. If you don’t checklist it, you’re not going to fly our plane. Second time, you don’t fly force anymore.’ These accidents are 100-percent preventable when you look at them. We’re not being struck by meteors. And, most of them occur at intersections, mostly because we violate some negative right-of-way situation. It isn’t voodoo.

We’re in the process of putting everybody in the Phoenix Fire Department through about a five-hour class with a really, really serious guy who’s a driver instructor—dull, smart, anal-retentive, no humor, doesn’t smile. This isn’t funny. Organizationally, we [the fire service] need to make a huge investment in this. We lose 25 percent of the firefighters who die in the line of duty at intersections. That’s a big deal.

Brennan: Just to lighten up a little bit on that issue, it’s like anything else that’s uncomfortable in this business: You have got to make it interesting and real. I’ll give you a for-instance of when it wasn’t real and a story about safe driving. In the ’60s, New York City had this place where full-duty cowards lived, which means you could have one white shirt and one uniform that would last you for a month. They never got dirty. If they were firefighters and full-duty cowards, they were training firefighters, then they were training officers, and they never left.

One of them was the safety, which was a joke. And if these guys were out in the field, it was announced, the department order, that they were in the field hunting for you. And as good as the officer was or as great as the company was—you could have saved 50 people for the last night tour or you could have saved a strip store taxpayer, a church, and a multiple dwelling the night before—if you messed up when these guys showed up in your quarters, [you were in big trouble].

This little bit of a guy showed up one day—this relates back to driving and everything that [Alan] was talking about. The officer, who was as brave as anybody, was shaking. We had six, seven firefighters; the chauffeur was George. George had a crewcut, and he never came to the firehouse. George arrived at the firehouse. And this guy’s walking up and down. The thing was, he was still in service (if we could get a run, if someone of these nitwits would have pulled a false alarm, we could have gotten out of there.) This guy’s doing his speech. I’ll never forget it. He’s walking up and down, and he’s talking about shotgun alley and double lines and stopping distance, reaction time, braking distance, ice time, multiple time on wet pavements with rain the day before, wet pavements without rain the day before. And he’s going up and down and up and down. He looks at George. He says, ‘Are you the chauffeur?’ George says, ‘Yes.’ He asks (this is when we had to shift gears), ‘What speed is your truck at the intersection?’ George says, ‘Fifth gear.’ This poor lieutenant figured his career is over. He jumps up and down. ‘Fifth gear, fifth gear! What do you mean by fifth gear? Why is it in fifth gear?’

George says, ‘I cut down on the exposure time.’


Brunacini: If [the cutting back] continues, we’ll be smaller.

Brennan: I have to go back to where I was before. You in this room, and I’ve been saying it since 1982 at the FDIC since Memphis, you are the leadership of this business for a lot of reasons. Either you’re here defined by rank or because of your attitude. You’re going to end up a commander. The thing is to arrive at that situation with all the bullets in your guns.

I was a chief. I had nine budgets. I never went down in my budget. Never. I went from $12.5 million to $21 million in eight years. It’s a matter of marketing. I would have the town believing that without this money they were in such deep problems. The thing is, you just can’t be a whipping boy. We need champions. We need knights on horses with lances who can go out and champion the cause of this fire service. We’re sitting around, getting beat up by people we don’t even know today. We had the fire service caucus. We couldn’t even decide we had one voice—us. It was taken over by manufacturers, so now it’s a lobbying effort.

Brunacini: ‘Where is the fire service going to be in 10 years?’ is a good question. An answer to that is, ‘Where will Mrs. Smith be in 10 years?’ In other words, I don’t think where we’re going to be is as critical because we don’t run this fire service for the people in this room. We run the first service for the people we protect. I think all this hooks up. I don’t think that we have refined very well the way that we connect to our customers and what their needs are, and then represent that in the system.

You know—and this is kind of our habitual answer—it all goes back to leadership, or whatever you want to call that, in the process. Our focus ought to be the connection we have to our customers. What’s going on in the Smith family’s life? One of the problems is that Mrs. Smith isn’t going to tell us where we ought to be in 10 years. We’re going to have to develop, refine, continually improve the connection we have to the people we serve. Previously, we had this very practical discussion about offensive operations. One of the problems is that Mrs. Smith thinks that we can come in and get her. The Smith family in the example Chief Brennan described has one three-person and two two-person companies. The customers see the lights on in the fire station. They say, ‘God’s in heaven; the fire department’s awake.’ And the firefighters are. It’s just that there’s not very many of them there. It’s not their fault, but for a lot of different reasons. So I think that when we start asking, ‘Where are we going to be in 10 years?’ that is sort of a challenging perspective for us.

Brennan: Let me ask you all a question: Does anybody here know a police department that’s going down in its budget every year? So, why is that? It’s called marketing. They know how to market very well. And to market you have to lead, and to lead you have to know; you have to know, and you have to manage.

Brunacini: But, when you watch that marketing, Tom, the police department doesn’t have any problem at all saying, ‘If you can’t give us these resources, we can’t control crime. And what this means is, they [the criminals] are going to get all your electronics, they’re going to break and enter, they’re going to conduct armed robberies. We don’t have the resources to do it. It’s not our fault.’

We [on the other hand] go home—and everybody in this room has done it a thousand times—’What’d you do last night, honey?’

‘Well, we burned down a hardware store [or whatever].’

I don’t think the cops go home and say, ‘Well, we robbed a bank.’ They don’t take responsibility. I’m not being critical of the police department. I’ve watched a situation in which a little fire department, one of our neighbors, received one unstaffed utility truck while the police department in that small city got 36 more police officers. Now, there’s something going on there. Duh! Well, if you stand back from that, I think the answer, and he [Chief Brennan] said it very well, is all the different dimensions of marketing.

TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan is featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Unplugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999).

ALAN V. BRUNACINI is a 45-year veteran of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, where he has been chief for 22 years. He is a past chairman of the board of directors of the National Fire Protection Association. He is also past chairman of the NFPA’s Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health Committee, which developed Standard 1500. He is currently the chairman of the NFPA’s Career Deployment Committee. He is the author of two books, Fire Command and Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service. Brunacini is a member of the FDIC West Educational Advisory Board. He was the recipient of the 2001 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award.

No posts to display