A bond forged in fire
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Sometimes Kate Bruno gives a certain look or displays a little mannerism and then braces herself. She knows that fellow firefighters are going to compare her to her dad, Capt. Mike Bruno.
“That was your dad,” they’ve told Kate, 28. “They are like, ‘You are your dad’s daughter, absolutely.’”
The part-time firefighter with Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority takes the comparisons in stride. She’s proud of the similarities.
“It comes through in our work and I think we do a good job,” said Kate.
She joined the department nearly seven years ago as a volunteer, primarily as a way to give back to her hometown community. It simply came as a bonus that her dad was a longtime firefighter in the same department.
Mike, 55, started his career as a volunteer with the valley’s Schell-Vista Fire Department when he was a senior in high school.
He’s been a paid firefighter for 35 years, one so deeply confident in his peers that he had little trepidation when his daughter enlisted as a volunteer.
“I trust the captains here. I trust every superior she works with,” said Mike. “Everybody here is really conscientious about the safety of our subordinates.”
Father and daughter are assigned to different fire stations but often meet up at trainings or on calls. On the scene they are professionals first, as respectful of one another as any other firefighter.
“On calls I try to call him Capt. Bruno, not Dad. I respect him as a captain. I treat him as any other captain I have,” said Kate.
“He’s not my dad when I’m here (at work) even though he is my dad.”
For Mike, it’s a bit harder to disassociate the relationship.
“I hear everything, the good and the bad,” he said, grinning. “She gets a pat on the back or a kick on the butt from me.”
If her drills aren’t as remarkable as he’d like, Capt. Bruno becomes Dad.
“I’m way harder on her,” he admits. “I look at her practice times and tell her to get the lead out.”
Mike ribs his daughter but is especially proud of her work ethic and abilities.
Kate is an outstanding firefighter, he says, and brings two additional skills that are greatly appreciated by the entire department: she can cook and she can speak Spanish.
“What makes her shine in our community is her ability to speak with our Hispanic community,” said Mike. “And all the guys want to work with her because she cooks so good.”
Kate developed her Spanish language skills outside of school.
“She just grabs a backpack and a surfboard and goes to live in Mexico for a year,” said Mike, the more conservative of the two.
He calls his daughter “hardworking, crazy and compassionate.” To Kate, her dad is “a goofball, a total goofball” but one who is supportive and reliable.
While their professional admiration is strong, they don’t hesitate to tease one another.
Mike tells the story of their first call together, a vehicle fire with flames blowing out the windows. Kate, still a novice at the time, showed up wearing her safety vest over her turnout jacket.
“She jumps out with her vest on and I bust out laughing,” Mike recalls.
Kate had misunderstood the purpose of the vest, which can melt.
“I never did that again,” she said.
Her dad has given her a few laughs, too. A favorite is when he frantically delivered a baby and announced to the mother, “It’s a boy!”
No, not quite.
When they arrived at the local hospital, a doctor informed Mike of his error. Nice delivery, but the baby was a girl.
When Mike responded to his next “man down” call, the dispatcher gleefully repeated, “MAN down!”
Mike and Kate embrace those light moments. They respond to so many tragedies and endure so many heart-wrenching moments that a little laughter is welcome, even at their own expense.
Beyond the physical demands – 5-foot 4-inch Kate wears 90 pounds of gear like everyone else – the emotional toll is even more challenging.
Firefighters are trained to cope but even Mike admits he carries some pretty tough memories. He encourages Kate to talk things out with the crew and is available for her phone calls 24/7.
Kate is one of Mike’s five children – all daughters. She and Heather, 34, are from his first marriage; daughters Taylor, 19, Courtney, 17, and Maisey, 14, are from his current marriage.
He commutes from Placerville; Kate lives in Sonoma Valley. Although both enjoy freshwater fishing together and have a shared interest in tattoos – Mike has one, Kate has nine or 10 – they say they don’t see each other often enough.
When Mike’s away from the job he’s back in Placerville, where he serves as a volunteer with the local fire department.
Kate is a huge San Francisco Giants fan, is the drummer for a folk band called Free Works and holds a second job as a server at Juanita Juanita in El Verano, the popular Mexican restaurant owned by her other “equally awesome” parent, her mom Kathryn Bruno.
In a shout-out to servers everywhere, Kate insists the job is more difficult than firefighting.
“Waiting tables is by far so much harder than anything I’ve ever had to do with this department,” she said.
Kate doesn’t mind that of the department’s 34 part-time firefighters, she’s the only female. She’s in good company with Karri Miller, the department’s only full-time female firefighter.
Kate’s affectionately known as “Apple One” – “because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” – the first of three firefighters’ children to join the department. Jeff Paganini’s son Nick and Bob Norrbom’s son Mikey are right behind Kate.
The casual observer wouldn’t recognize the father-daughter bond within the department – but it’s there.
“I always tell her I love her, even if I’m on duty,” said Mike. “I don’t go hugging the other guys.”