To me, Hal Bruno is one of the most important figures in the history of this country's fire service. Hal died last night at age 83. I imagine that many of the younger firefighters and a few older ones who read this site aren't familiar with the name Hal Bruno. Hal wasn't a fire chief and his expertise wasn't in fireground tactics, hazardous materials, truck company or engine company operations. Hal's specialty was firefighters. He was the best friend a firefighter and the fire service could have.
But Hal Bruno wasn't the friend who just slapped you on the back and told you what you wanted to hear. Hal cared enough to tell us all what we needed to hear.
Whether it was through his "Fire Politics" column in Firehouse Magazine, or in countless talks and presentations at conventions and seminars, or privately with fire chiefs and union leaders, Hal Bruno provided invaluable guidance, counseling and advice on how the fire service could win the hearts and minds of the American public, elected officials and other government leaders. The effort behind the victory at the polls in Ohio for firefighters and other government workers at the same time Hal was leaving us is right out of the Hal Bruno playbook.
Hal knew that it took a lot more than just doing the job of fighting fires and saving lives to secure the resources needed to have an effective fire department that is properly supported by the people it serves. Hal Bruno's decades of work helped create the modern fire service leader who not only knows his or her way around the fireground but who can also navigate the corridors of City Hall or Congress and answer the tough questions from a reporter.
Hal shared with all those connected to the fire service what he learned from his long career as a political reporter. He was a distinguished observer of the political scene. After 18 years at Newsweek, Hal Bruno became the political director for ABC News. He had direct contact with those elected to lead this country. In 1992 Hal moderated the Vice Presidential debate between Dan Quayle, Al Gore and James Stockdale. It was one of the liveliest of these type of debates (click here and take a look for yourself) with the unflappable Hal Bruno in the middle of it trying to keep order. A style that served him well when he kept the politicians and the fire chiefs (and their egos) in check after assuming the role of MC at the annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner in Washington.
CFSI Executive Director Bill Webb attended that 1992 debate. For Firehouse.com sixteen years later, Bill wrote about Hal, "He was a straight shooter who never revealed his political affiliation by the types of questions he would ask."
But Hal Bruno did show bias and exactly where he stood when it came to firefighters. As Hal related to many, he was practically raised in a Chicago firehouse and always felt indebted to firefighters. He later became a volunteer firefighter and was a member of many fire service organizations, including DC's Friendship Fire Association. It was not unusual to see Hal on a multi-alarm fire in the Nation's Capital handing out coffee on a cold winter's night.
Being there for firefighters took on a new meaning, well beyond providing refreshments and giving advice on politics, when Hal Bruno became a charter member of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's Board of Directors in 1993. In a big way, Hal Bruno was now able to practice what he had been preaching to firefighters for so many years. He used his political skill and insight to help guide the Foundation in its role of honoring the fallen and caring for their survivors. In 1999 he took over as Chairman of the Board.
His accomplishments in that role were many. They will long have impact on the safety and well-being of firefighters and the survivors of those who died in the line of duty. Current Chairman Dennis Compton and Executive Director Ron Siarnicki continue to build on that legacy.
In his final years as chairman, Hal Bruno worked tirelessly to make sure the families of fallen firefighters received federal benefits promised them. I listened to Hal, of course, explain the politics behind the issue as we stood watching the Georgetown Library burn in April, 2007.
At that time I had already been listening to Hal for almost 40 years. I first became aware of his as a young teenager reading my parents' Newsweek. But the name Hal Bruno became permanently etched in my mind in1974, the same year I became a volunteer firefighter. What caught my attention was an article he had written for Argosy Magazine about the 1958 Our Lady of the Angels fire in Chicago that killed 92 school children and three nuns. It was a tragedy that Hal Bruno witnessed. Hal's recounting of that event and his analysis of fire safety in the United States made such an impression on me, to this day, I have held onto that magazine.
Like many of you, I also became a big fan of Hal's columns on politics when Firehouse began publishing in 1976. In 1983 I finally got to meet Hal Bruno. That was when Rich Adams, the editorial director at Channel 9, who worked across the alley when I was a reporter at WTOP Radio, invited me to a cookout at the Bruno home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Hal and Rich were close friends who shared a bond of journalism, bluegrass music and the fire service. Rich wrote the EMS column for Firehouse and was a long time member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.
While jazz is more my style, I was on board with the rest of what these two had to offer. In fact, both Hal and Rich were important influences on my career. They showed me how to combine a job in broadcast news with a passion for firefighting. In addition, when I went to work at Channel 9 in 1985, Hal and Rich each gave me a great deal of encouragement, and even some news tips.
In 1996 Hal asked me to fill in for an ill Rich Adams, who each year hosted the annual satellite telecast of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Service. When Hal called I really wasn't sure this was something I should be doing as a reporter who covered the fire service. Hal reassured me that it was fine and essentially held my hand through the first year's broadcast. Sadly, Rich passed away not long after Memorial Weekend. I kept coming back to Emmitsburg year after year because no one, including Hal, told me not to. I was learning that this connection to NFFF was something quite important to me and will always be grateful to Hal for making it a part of my life.
Despite all that I've written here, I am not the biggest Hal Bruno fan in my family. That honor goes to my wife Hillary Howard. In 2002 Hillary helped produce the Candlelight Service for Memorial Weekend when it was held in Washington, DC because of the large loss from September 11, 2001. She will tell you that the highlight of those couple of months was working with Hal.
Hillary often talks about Hal's warmth, charm, intelligence, smile and quiet strength. All of those attributes were still on display for us one last time, a month ago, as we stopped and chatted with Hal and his beautiful wife Meg in the dining hall at Emmitsburg at the end of Memorial Weekend. As we caught up, the conversation quickly turned to a mutual friend who had recently found himself forced out of a fire department job. Hal Bruno, of course, wanted to hear all about the politics behind this move.
It should be noted that Hal Bruno died on election day.