Looking for a way to make a few extra dollars his senior year of high school, Bruce Varner was told that a good way to make some cash was to sell pictures of fires to local newspapers. So he loaded some film and started hanging around incidents and firehouses. After many hours of talking with guys on the job, Varner decided he wanted to get involved. But there was one problem: he was still a few years
Looking for a way to make a few extra dollars his senior year of high school, Bruce Varner was told that a good way to make some cash was to sell pictures of fires to local newspapers. So he loaded some film and started hanging around incidents and firehouses.
After many hours of talking with guys on the job, Varner decided he wanted to get involved. But there was one problem: he was still a few years shy of 21, the minimum age requirement for firefighters in Arizona.
“So I got married and had kids, just waiting to turn 21,” Varner recalls. He even sold a photo or two along the way. As his birthday approached, he received help preparing for the entrance exam from those same firefighters he had been taking pictures of.
“Some of the things they taught me, I never had to use as a firefighter,” says Varner, chief of the Carrollton (Texas) Fire Department and Fire Chief Magazine's 2001 Career Fire Chief of the Year. “But it made me appreciate what those guys did.”
Varner says that training as a shutterbug was both a help and a hindrance early in his career. “It helped me to learn to look more closely for things, as a firefighter, as a driver, as an officer,” says Varner. “But sometimes I look at a fire and say, ‘Gee, that would make a great picture.’”
Varner celebrates his 35th anniversary in the fire service this year, and he has been at most fires either as a firefighter or as a photographer, but he still loves the job as much as he did as a rookie.
“I am wowed everyday by what some firefighters do for others, do for each other,” marvels Varner.
He began his career at the Phoenix Fire Department, with the goal of becoming a company officer by his 30th birthday. Though he missed that goal by a few years, he moved steadily through the ranks in both line and staff positions, responsible for problem analysis, safety and communications. He even worked occasionally as the department's photographer. Varner was promoted to the rank of deputy chief in 1985.
“In addition to being a tireless worker, I believe him to be one of the most trustworthy and loyal individuals I have had the pleasure of working with in my 40+ years with the fire service,” writes Alan Brunacini, Varner's former chief, in his Chief of the Year nomination letter. “… I am very proud to have known Bruce in his developmental years and even prouder to consider him today as one of my peers in the fire service.”
Varner says he owes much of his success to his mentor and friend Brunacini. “Any positive aspects of my career, I give him credit for,” he says. “Anything I've done wrong, I just didn't learn well enough. Phoenix was a great company to grow up with.”
Home on a new range
Varner left Phoenix for Carrollton in 1992 when he was offered the chief's position. Carrollton covers 37 square miles with a population of 102,000. The department consists of three divisions, seven fire stations, seven paramedic engine companies, one ladder company, three paramedic engines and one battalion engine, staffed and supported by 135 members.
“… I miss him and what he brought to our department and would take him back in a heartbeat if he would take a demotion,” Brunacini writes.
As chief, Varner is also the department's emergency management coordinator. One important change Varner helped bring to Carrollton is in the fire department's delivery of EMS. One of his first tasks was to equip all first companies on scene with full EMS functions, except transport capabilities.
“We had to hand down and trade equipment to get it done,” Varner recalls. “And we celebrated the day we reached 100% coverage.” In February 1996, Carrollton became the first department-based ambulance system in the country to achieve accreditation by the Council on Accreditation of Ambulance Services.
Another constantly changing aspect of the Carrollton department Varner needed to adapt to was technology. “We not only used technology, we embraced technology,” he says, citing the department's use of thermal imaging. The department bought its first of several infrared cameras during the early stages of their use. The problem was that the department needed more than one unit, but with a $24,000 price tag, another one couldn't be worked into the budget.
“We think we should be getting what we need right away,” Varner says. “It's sometimes hard to explain to firefighters — we are an instant-gratification people who fall short on the patience spectrum — why we aren't getting what we need.”
Varner's solution came from a very unlikely source. One day he received a phone call from a second-grade teacher who told him that her students wanted to buy the department another camera. So students from Polser Elementary School, and later from Indian Creek Elementary School, hit the pavement with firefighters, making pubic appearances and holding fundraisers. “We shamelessly paraded those students in front of the city council,” Varner recalls.
The students raised more than $12,000 for the cause. The council matched the students' funds and the department was able to purchase its second thermal imager. Now there's a thermal imager in each of Carrollton's seven stations.
“He has continued to advance the high quality of professional fire suppression and prevention services that our citizens have come to expect,” writes Carrollton Interim City Manager Bob Scott.
A lasting first impression
That citizen satisfaction is one of the most important things Varner strives for. The people of Carrollton aren't just citizens, they're customers.
“You have to be cognizant of how you're seen,” Varner says. “One oops can put you in a bad light. But if you have a reputation for quality, you can explain that oops and go on.”
Varner tries to instill in his firefighters that it's not just important to do something right, they also need to do the right thing, and do for their customers what they would for their own mothers.
“Fire companies are the last American heroes,” Varner says. “When someone doesn't know who to call, they call us. They like and respect us and what we do. They give us keys to their lock boxes. Grandmothers give us their sick children at 3 a.m. to take care of. There isn't any greater trust.”
One day a city councillor approached Varner to thank him for what some firefighters had done for a friend of hers. The woman had fallen in her home and cut her head. Firefighters responded to the call, tended to the woman's wound and transported her to the hospital. When the woman returned home the next day, she found that not only had the firefighters locked up behind themselves, they took the time to clean up blood off the kitchen floor.
“That's just the type of people who work here,” Varner says. “It's more than just taking care of calls, it's taking care of citizens.”
Varner doesn't just extend that good will to those he serves. Above all, he says, he's proud of his firefighters. And with his busy schedule, Varner says one thing he would like to find more time for is mentoring, “to be a coach, make suggestions and shove gently when needed.”
Varner's interactive, relaxed management style allows his firefighters the opportunity to take more initiative. “I would rather my firefighters say ‘What does that guy want us to do now?’ than ‘Can we do something, chief? Can we?’”
“The fire service is full of bright people at every level who are sometimes afraid to make decisions that sometimes aren't politically popular,” he says. “It's important to have respect for those who came before you and have compassion for those trying to learn their craft. Help them achieve their goals.”
One of the ways Varner stresses to help achieve those goals is through continuing education.
Varner holds an associate's degree in fire science from Phoenix College. He also completed the Arizona State University Fire Science Institute Program and he holds a Master Firefighter Certification from the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. Varner also has participated in field programs in fire prevention dynamics, management, public education, fire risk analysis and firefighter safety, and has completed middle management and executive development programs at the National Fire Academy.
“If for no other reason, it's important for the networking with other students,” says Varner. “You have the opportunity of feeding from others' experiences.”
If the classroom setting isn't for you, Varner stresses the importance of classroom opportunities and networking opportunities at trade shows and conferences. “If you're not going yourself, send your members,” he advises.
And don't be afraid to bring speakers into your own department, and share the experience with neighboring agencies. “It's important to extend experiences and opportunities beyond your own department,” Varner says.
In addition to his work in Carrollton, Varner has been actively involved with the National Fire Protection Association since 1980. He has served as committee chairman of NFPA 1972, Helmets for Structural Fire Fighting, and NFPA 1976, Protective Clothing for Proximity Fire Fighting, and he currently serves as a member of the Technical Correlating Committee on Fire Service's Protective Clothing and Equipment.
“It has been an opportunity to meet brilliant people in the fire service and in private industry,” he says. “An opportunity to grow and to bring more to the department.”
While involvement with the NFPA has brought personal growth, it's also helped bring his department recognition. “The department has been involved in [product] trials, research and development,” Varner says. “Some still say ‘Who? Where?’ but the department is certainly more recognized.”
Of the many programs Varner has been associated with, the one he is most proud of is the “Fire Command” seminar program, where he was part of the instructional team. “It changed how a lot of people commanded for the better,” he says. “We now see fire officers more concerned with safety on the fireground. If there is still anything that disturbs me, it's the number of line-of-duty deaths.”
“I truly enjoy what I do, and I'm proud to be a member of the fire service, proud to be recognized as a progressive fire chief,” Varner says. “I hope I don't ever come across as knowing it all or knowing too much. This job has taught me that I don't ever have all the answers.”
Though he's in his fourth decade in the fire service, Varner isn't ready to hang up the helmet yet. “I want people to ask, ‘What is the fire department up to now?’” Varner says. “I want to continue to surprise people with what we're involved in.”
Currently, Carrollton is working toward getting AEDS in all public buildings, getting more fire departments active in middle schools and high schools, and a joint fire department — community college officer development program, which would be “a valuable asset to those up-and-coming and those recently made,” Varner says.
But whatever challenges he is yet to face, Varner is glad to be facing them from behind a desk.
“[Firefighthing] is very much a young man's job, but sometimes I ask ‘Why are those guys having all the fun?’” he says. “But I am where a chose to be, where I worked to be, and I'm proud of who I am.”