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Municipal Multi-tasking

Frank Brocato knows about recruiting technology companies, dousing high-rise fires and birthing mall babies.

Like many city officials, Hoover Mayor Frank Brocato often finds himself putting out fires — in a figurative sense, of course. But Brocato actually has plenty of experience extinguishing real fires. Before being elected mayor in 2016, Brocato spent 42 years working as a member of the Hoover Fire Department.

“It was a very rewarding career,” says Brocato, who served as Hoover’s first-ever paramedic and fire marshal. “You’re one-on-one with people during some of their most desperate times, and you’re trying to help them get through the crisis. You’re always helping someone in some type of difficult situation. That really appealed to me.”

The opportunity to work for the Hoover Fire Department knocked at Brocato’s door while he was still a teenager. A family friend who owned a dry cleaning business made deliveries to the Brocato’s house, and during one trip in 1972 he mentioned to Brocato that he also worked for the Mountain Brook Fire Department.

As the friend described what it was like to be a firefighter, the young Brocato became intrigued. He had assumed he simply would work with his father in their family-owned restaurant — Brocato Seafood — but suddenly he saw the potential for a different career path.

The friend suggested that Brocato could experience the job first-hand by volunteering with the new city of Hoover, which at that time was only 5 years old. This was the spark that lit a four-decade career for Brocato, who joined the Hoover volunteer fire department in February of 1973.

“There was no training,” Brocato recalls. “We met every Tuesday night for drills. That’s where I learned about being a firefighter. I immediately embraced it and loved it. I thought, ‘This is a great job. I’d love to do this.’ So I started working a few shifts here and there. I was still helping my dad with the restaurant, but (working for the fire department) was already in my blood.”

In 1974, the department added a paramedic program, and Brocato was offered the chance to go to UAB for the training. A year later, he was hired to be a full-time member of the department.

“I told my dad this was the career I wanted and I was going to leave the restaurant business. He wasn’t upset at all,” Brocato says. “My parents were so proud of the fact I was a firefighter and paramedic. They loved to tell people who came into the restaurant what I did.

“The paramedic part of it was really intriguing. I treated heart attack victims and people with seizures and folks who had been severely injured in automobile wrecks. It was like working in an emergency room, but you were out in the field. I feel like we helped save a lot of lives.”

One of the most memorable moments of Brocato’s career occurred during his first year working full time with the department. One Friday evening they received a call that a woman had parked her car at a gas station near the Hoover Mall and was about to give birth. As the only person on duty who was a father and had witnessed an actual birth, Brocato was called on to handle the delivery.

“The training we had back then in terms of child birth was very weak. We watched old World War II films that soldiers would have watched on how to deliver a baby,” Brocato says. “Fortunately, there was a lady there who helped me, and we just kind of walked ourselves through the thing.

“We delivered the baby and cut the cord, and when I picked up the baby to go to the ambulance this huge crowd of about 300 people started cheering. I felt like I had just scored the winning touchdown in the Alabama-Auburn game. It was quite moving. It was the first baby delivered by the Hoover Fire Department.”

Of course, most days were not nearly that exciting, especially during Brocato’s early years with the department. Hoover was still little more than a sleepy Birmingham suburb in the 1970s. Not only was this several years before the creation of the I-459 bypass, but Interstate 65 was not even fully completed through the city. The city of Hoover consisted mainly of homes in the Green Valley subdivision and a few small businesses along Highway 31.

“The job in the ’70s was as a residential firefighter,” says Brocato, who was named the city’s fire marshal in 1979. “There were very few apartment buildings or commercial buildings. We’d have a few fires here and there, but nothing really big.”

That changed in the early 1980s as Hoover began to annex land aggressively and expand in every direction. Bluff Park, Greystone and Inverness were all brought into the fold. Apartments, strip malls and office complexes popped up throughout the city, rapidly increasing the number of people — and emergencies — within the department’s response range.

ABOVE When Hoover Mayor Frank Brocato visits the city’s fire department, it’s more than a spot check by city officials — it’s an Old Home Week chance to visit with former colleagues at the department where he worked for 42 years before being elected mayor in 2016.
 

Then the city annexed the community of Riverchase, followed soon afterward by the construction of the Galleria mall and office tower, which at one point was the largest mixed-use project in the Southeast and one of the top 10 largest in the United States.

“That changed the look of Hoover altogether,” Brocato says. “Everything really started to grow after that, and our department had to grow as well. We had to be ready to do all the things that you would see in any big-city department — angle rescue, confined-space rescue, handling hazardous materials. We were called to do those things often, in addition to the very large fires we fought over the years in apartment buildings and commercial buildings.”

This change was most evident on June 5, 1985, during the final construction phase of the Galleria, when a fire broke out on the top three floors of the 17-story office tower.

“We really grew up as a fire department that day,” Brocato says. “We went from residential firefighters to having to handle a high-rise fire. We’d never experienced anything like that. But we put our training into action, and we had a good result as a young fire department.”

Brocato retired from the Hoover Fire Department in 2015, but he had no plans of leaving public service. In fact, Brocato says he had been thinking about running for mayor “since the 1990s.”

In August of 2016 he was elected to the position with 52 percent of the vote in a three-person race. One of Brocato’s goals as mayor is to increase Hoover’s presence in the tech sector. The city already has enticed McLeod Software — a 33-year-old Birmingham company that works primarily with the trucking industry — to move its headquarters this summer into a 140,000-square-foot building in Hoover’s Meadow Brook Corporate Park.

“I’ve been representing Hoover in some type of leadership role since about 1979, and I love that,” Brocato says. “I love telling people about our city and the good things that we’re doing.”

Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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