Humbled by the recognition given him by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, National Firefighter of the Year John Brunett spreads the credit.
ABILENE, TX—Beneath a bright yet overcast sky, blustery breezes greet sidewalk passersby in this West Texas town, as one of its public servants relaxes at a table outside a Starbucks. On this late spring morning, attired in his Fire Department uniform, he obliges his questioner with answers about what it is like to receive a national honor from the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
That resident, Capt. John Brunett, assistant fire marshal for the Abilene Fire Department, is this year’s National Firefighter of the Year, as proclaimed by the VFW. VFW Commander-in-Chief John W. Stroud has gone on record stating that he wanted to share with the nation Brunett’s dedication and selfless service to the Abilene Fire Department and local community. VFW chose Brunett over 86 other firefighters nominated by local VFW posts across the nation.
Brunett said he was proud, even overwhelmed, to earn the local award, let alone the state and national recognitions that followed. Describing himself as “oblivious” to the process (he didn’t nominate himself, of course, nor did he have any input at any point), Brunett said his selection for the national award caught him totally off guard.
How much of a surprise was it? It wasn’t until he showed up April 24 at a banquet to which he had been invited by the Abilene VFW post, ostensibly to accept the recognition as local Firefighter of the Year, that he learned about the state and national awards. “Yeah,” he said with a smile, “it was a big surprise.”
VFW does not restrict its selection process to VFW members; rather, the organization opens its nomination process for its annual Public Servant Awards to any worthy individual in any community, any U.S. locality. The awards are bestowed for three categories: police officer, firefighter, and emergency medical technician (EMT).
VFW issued the following proclamation when it chose Brunett as its Firefighter honoree for 2015: “Captain Brunett has… an exceptional record of exemplary and courageous service to the community and the nation. His extraordinary commitment is in keeping with the core values and traditions of the firefighter profession, further manifested by the high degree of admiration and respect of both his peers and the local public he serves.”
Brunett is a thoughtful interviewee. He measures his words. Asked what it was that earned him the recognition, he seems prone to deflect the praise. “I try to do the best at my job,” he said. “I’m in a unique situation—I don’t ride a fire truck anymore. I did that many years ago, but my job now is in more of the fire prevention role than the fire suppression role. My job is to make sure people are able to get out of a business and to make sure that the guys, when they show up on the fire trucks, have the right tools and equipment on that site to get in there and get out of there as well.
“It’s unique,” he emphasized. “We’re the ‘ugly’ people in the fire department, so to speak. We’re not perceived as the guys who deliver babies and show up when you’re in a time of need. When we show up, sometimes it costs you money. We’re the law enforcement of the fire department, so to speak. I also do arson investigation, which requires me to be a police officer.”
Indeed, Brunett is a credentialed peace officer, certified in both law enforcement and in firefighting, making him just one of three such individuals in this city of 118,000. “We’re focused mainly on arson,” he said. “In order to prosecute a case in the State of Texas, you have to be a police officer.”
Though not a member of VFW himself, Brunett likely will join when he reaches or nears retirement. He acknowledged that he holds the qualifications for membership, but he said that his post-career days seem best fitted for VFW service.
“A lot of the VFW members I’ve met are retirees,” Brunett said. “It’s always seemed to me that that would be the best time for me to get involved with the organization. Even though I’m not a member now, I’ve done—and the fire department has done—a number of different events with them. I worked with them as a public educator, for one. And helped them hold their bicycle rodeo.”
Brunett’s VFW eligibility arises from his six years in the Air Force, when he was deployed in the Desert Storm/Desert Shield operations. He also served four years in the 1990s in the occupied city of Berlin, earning the Army of Occupation Medal. Either of those deployments qualified him for membership.
As for his fitness for his VFW recognition, we’ll leave that question for his associates to answer:
Charles Galco, a firefighter at the Abilene Fire Department, has known Brunett 19 years, having gone through the Fire Academy with him and having fought fires with him in their early years with the department. Galco described Brunett, as a firefighter, a “hard-charging” type. “He has a laser focus,” Galco said. “He’s also loyal and considerate. A consummate professional.” Galco said Brunett knows how to cook, too, and that the two of them appeared on camera in a number of episodes of a television show called “Firehouse Chef,” which still airs frequently on one of the local stations.
Jim Moore, fire marshal for the Abilene Fire Department, said that Brunett is passionate about what he does.
“He’s very interested in it, and in passing on that knowledge to firefighters who want to know what he knows. They see his juices flowing and it interests them in the job—in the idea of doing it as well as he does it. They know John has done this a while, that he’s very good at it, and that he is a great instructor at getting that information across to others.”
Moore, who is John Brunett’s supervisor, also had this to say about his staffer:
“We all look to John for answers when we’re struggling for answers. He’s great at customer service. I’m the one who drafted the [application] that got him nominated for the award, and I can tell you that that nomination was not a bunch of mush. He takes his role seriously and he’s good at what he does.”
John and his wife Stephanie, an elementary teacher (second grade) marked their one-year anniversary in June. Theirs is a blended family, their union being a second time around for both of them. John’s two sons are both military-minded, like their dad. The older son, Jonthan, is presently serving in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state. The younger son, Justin, a junior in high school, is enrolled in a National Guard program, and is spending this summer in basic training so that after he finishes his senior year he can move directly into the AIT program, or Advanced Training. He’ll progress from there to an ROTC program at a college level. Said John: “I’m very proud of both of them.”
He’s proud, too, of his young stepson Gabriel, who is a second grader. “He’s into the military too,” Brunett said with a smile. “His father is actually in the Air Force.”
John himself grew up in South Florida, born into a family with strong military affiliations. His dad, grandfather, and brother were all in the service. During John’s active duty, in his Germany years, he was in the 7350th Security Police Squadron. At one time he was part of the security team that guarded comedian Bob Hope, who was entertaining troops in Germany, and U.S. Ambassador Shirley Temple Black. He said he got to know—and he liked—both of the dignitaries during those assignments.
When he was transferred later to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, he served in the 7th Security Police Squadron.
His current role draws on some of his background in security. But he said that he’s been fortunate to be able to do “pretty much anything I’ve wanted to do” in firefighting and prevention in his current job.
“We’re not a huge department,” he said. “I’ve been a member of a hazardous materials team. I’ve been a member of our underwater recovery team. I’ve done public education, so I’ve been able to teach kids about fire safety. I’ve been on several committees, whether it’s spec-ing out new fire equipment or looking at new policies or procedures. I’ve been able to actually write some of our policies. And now now I’m in the inspection/investigation field, where I’ve really found my home. This is probably where I’m going to end my career.”
It says something about Brunett that he volunteered a final thought after all questions were finished. “I’d like to say something about the VFW,” he offered, giving his typical careful consideration. “These are people that we should be honoring because of all the efforts that they’ve given to our country and the sacrifices they’ve made. The fact that they’ve taken that time to honor public servants, teachers, and students just says a lot about that organization.”
He paused, then continued. “I’ve done a couple spots on the news media and stuff like that [when he found occasion to mention VFW], and I just can’t emphasize enough the amount of effort and time that they put into serving the community. These are people that we should be really honoring, and here they are, trying to honor us. The award means a lot to me. I was totally taken by surprise. But to see the amount of effort that they put into it and what they do for our community… well, that makes it very special.”
For more on Capt. Brunett and his recognition, including more of his background and some of his thoughts on the fire code, a document that, as he says, is “written in tragedy,” see John Brunett: VFW as an “Eye-Opener”.