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A new role after years abroad

 

The job he took with Rural/Metro Corp. as the company’s Rochester-area division general manager some 15 months ago is a step back in his career arc, Thomas Bonfiglio says.

It was not a move he intended to make, but he is not unhappy to have made it, he says.

To be sure, his responsibilities as a division manager are not small. Bonfiglio oversees some 400 workers and runs emergency-response operations that span Monroe County and reach to the Southern Tier.

Rural/Metro’s Rochester-area staff includes some 150 aides and nurses in a home health care division as well as 250 emergency medical technicians. The operation includes ambulance services in Corning and Monroe County. Several administrators and operations managers report to Bonfiglio.

But until shortly before he returned to the Rochester area to take the Rural/Metro job in January 2009, a division manager’s job in Upstate New York was not where Bonfiglio thought he would be headed.

Bonfiglio left the Rochester area in 1999. He had been at Rural/Metro for five years, working his way up from a part-time job to become an operations manager. He came back after a stint in South America, where the circles in which he traveled included high-ranking government officials of several countries.

In South America, Bonfiglio most recently started and ran an ambulance and fire company in Bolivia. Fluent enough in Spanish to be taken for a native speaker, he had been a Rural/Metro group president reporting directly to the company’s CEO. In South America, he also worked with U.S. defense contractors specializing in emergency-service, counterterrorism and anti-drug matters.

Bonfiglio also owned an emergency services operation in Argentina. He had first run the operation as group president of Rural/Metro’s South American division. It was one of several South American units the Arizona company acquired in the mid-1990s. When Rural/Metro decided to shed its South American interests, it offered to sell Bonfiglio the Argentinean and Bolivian operations he had been running. He took the offer.

Bonfiglio, who is married to a Bolivian woman with whom he has a 5-year-old daughter, had intended to stay in Bolivia and continue building his business. In 2008, he changed his mind.

"Bolivia," Bonfiglio says, "is a Third World country."

By that he means it is a land of stark economic contrasts where impoverished Indian and mestizo peasants and a wealthy upper class coexist in an uneasily shifting political landscape pockmarked with military coups and drug-fueled violence. While Bonfiglio did not feel entirely at sea in navigating that milieu, he eventually came to believe that remaining in it was less than prudent.

From 2002 to 2008, Bonfiglio was based in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, developing firefighting and EMS operations first for Rural/Metro and later under his own company, Unidad Emergencias Medicas LLC.

Concerns arise
In 2002, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a former Bolivian president and centrist reformer, won re-election in a close contest, narrowly edging out Evo Morales, the head of the Bolivian coca growers union, who after a period of instability was elected president in 2005.

Morales, who is still in office and still heads the coca growers organization, has edged Bolivia ever closer to the orbit of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. policies who has made a show of courting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

At the front end of his South American sojourn, Bonfiglio managed Rural/Metro’s Bolivian operations as well as its Argentinean division. After taking over the Rural/Metro operation and selling off the Argentinean operation at a profit, he had decided to concentrate on the Bolivian company, which had contracts to run firefighting operations at the country’s three airports and developed Bolivia’s first emergency medical service.

"I built the ambulance service from the ground up," Bonfiglio says. "When I came, there were no ambulances. If people needed to go to hospital for emergency treatment, they put them in taxicabs. That’s what they had, taxicabs."

From 2005 to 2008, Bonfiglio also worked as a consultant for Raytheon Technical Services Co. LLC of Reston, Va., which provides support to governments and private agencies in U.S. and overseas civil aviation, counter-proliferation and counterterrorism markets.

In 2007, Bonfiglio earned a post-graduate diploma in security and defense from the Bolivian Armed Forces University. A year later, he earned a certificate in advanced counterterrorism and counterinsurgency from the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

By 2008, Bonfiglio says, he had begun to feel increasingly uncertain of how long the Morales regime would tolerate someone with the kind of political and professional associations he had running key emergency services such as airport firefighting.

"It’s a small country, 9 million people. In the airport operations, I worked closely with government officials," Bonfiglio says. "And even at the end I had friends in the government."

Still, he is a careful man who decided to err on the side of caution. It would be a matter of time before the Morales government moved against him, and that time might not be far in the future, Bonfiglio figured. He turned over the company to its workers, taking no payment in the deal, and started to look for a job in the United States.

Back to the U.S.

Bonfiglio looked first in Washington, D.C., hoping to land a defense or emergency services job with the government or a defense contractor. Competition for such work turned out to be fiercer than he expected.

His resume was solid, but so were the resumes of scores of candidates vying for the same jobs, Bonfiglio says. The high-level emergency services and counterterrorism contacts he cultivated in South America had little pull in Washington and could open no doors there. When the Rochester division manager job came up, Bonfiglio took it.

Bonfiglio, 36, lives in Pittsford. Tall and on the beefy side, he favors dark, well-tailored, conservatively cut suits, and wears his dark hair cut to medium length, neatly combed and parted on the left. When asked a question, Bonfiglio answers promptly and in detail, choosing his words carefully.

Bonfiglio, who grew up in Clinton, near Utica, started working for Rural/Metro when he was a student at St. John Fisher College. He continued to work for the company after he graduated in 1999 with a major in political science. He had considered a career in law and took the Law School Admission Test, but his real ambitions lay in emergency services.

"I grew up watching the TV show ‘Emergency’ and was always fascinated by EMS work," Bonfiglio says. "It was 50-50 whether I’d be a cop or a paramedic."

After years working in the profession and ascending to management ranks, he still is thrilled by the work. He does not play golf but finds time to do ambulance ride-alongs. He has no hobbies and few outside interests, Bonfiglio says. Work satisfies a desire to provide meaningful service, and he feels no real need for outside diversion.

Bonfiglio joined Rural/Metro in 1994 shortly after the Arizona-based firm bought the locally founded and run National Ambulance Co. For the next five years, he rose through the ranks swiftly, working as a dispatcher, paramedic, field training officer and operations supervisor.

His fluency in Spanish, gained during a stint as a high school exchange student in Spain, helped Bonfiglio win a promotion to the South American job.

Terry Taylor is a firefighter with the Rochester Fire Department who also works part time as continuing education coordinator for Rural/Metro and as an adjunct professor teaching EMS at Monroe Community College. Before joining the Fire Department in 1996, he worked as a paramedic for Rural/Metro, serving alongside Bonfiglio.

Taylor, who is some four years older than Bonfiglio, remembers the young Bonfiglio as an EMT and paramedic to whom colleagues would turn for guidance despite his age.

"I heard other people speak about him first," Taylor says. "As a paramedic, people took note of him. It was clear that he was very intelligent and very well spoken. People would go to him for advice."

On the job, Bonfiglio showed an aptitude for quickly sizing up a situation and deciding on a course of action, an essential skill for first responders, Taylor says. In responding to medical emergencies and accidents, there are often more gray areas than the general public would want to think about.

Once Bonfiglio had determined what he thought to be the correct course, he would be aggressive in seeing that course of action was followed, a certitude that Taylor came to see as one of Bonfiglio’s chief virtues.

Taylor returned to Rural/Metro as a part-time training coordinator some five months before Bonfiglio’s return. The men, who had not stayed in touch over the decade Bonfiglio spent in South America, became reacquainted.

A feature of the EMS community that is not obvious to the general public is its politics, Taylor says. The politics stem from the fragmented nature of emergency response administration. The 911 center is a county-run operation. Fire departments are a patchwork of volunteer and municipally run services. Some ambulance services are volunteer operations. A rival private ambulance service, Monroe Ambulance, also covers much of the same territory as Rural/Metro. EMS personnel are certified by the state.

Local EMS politics became a matter of public debate some three years ago when a four-way brawl among Monroe Ambulance, National Ambulance, Rochester mayor Robert Duffy and the Rochester City Council over the lucrative city 911 contract spilled into the headlines.

Monroe and National Ambulance had vied for and alternated winning bids for the contract for years before Rural/Metro inherited the contract from National Ambulance. When Duffy decided to hand the contract back to Monroe, the tussle revived.

Rural/Metro and its unionized workers protested that a switch would mean job losses and claimed that Monroe was less well-equipped to handle the 911 call volume. The City Council voted against Duffy’s recommendation, opting to keep Rural/Metro. Duffy vetoed that, but the council overrode the veto, handing a two-year pact to Rural/Metro in 2008. Monroe took the case to court but was unable to unseat its rival.

The controversy briefly reignited this year when the 911 pact ran out. After weeks of heated debate, Rural/Metro won a one-year extension in March.

"We’re confident that, after this yearlong extension, we will be invited to renew our long-term contract with the city," Bonfiglio said in a statement at the time.

In addition to the city 911 contract, Rural/Metro has contracts with the University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester General Hospital to transport patients to Rochester General and URMC’s Strong Memorial Hospital from outlying hospitals.

Rural/Metro ambulances respond to 180 to 200 calls a day in Monroe County. Rural/Metro in addition is dispatched to ambulance calls outside the city, mostly on the county’s east side, to cover calls that local volunteer services cannot get to.

A big part of Bonfiglio’s job as Rural/Metro’s division chief, Taylor says, consists of balancing the parochial concerns of the

various actors in the local EMS community with those of Rural/Metro, which remains a central connecting point for all. In Taylor’s view, this is no mean feat.

In reading the political map and choosing a course of action, Bonfiglio displays the same quick analytical skill and decisiveness he showed as an emergency responder, Taylor says. They are not talents everyone would be able to transfer.

In addition to seeing Bonfiglio in action as an administrator, Taylor reasons that his ability to navigate the far rougher waters of South American politics and his wisdom in knowing when to get out demonstrate skills more than adequate to handle local relations.

"I’m pretty sure that nobody else here has done emergency services in a Third World country," Taylor says.

Where the most brilliantly analytical EMT might easily prove a dunce at internecine EMS politics, Taylor adds, "I think (Bonfiglio) will be as aggressive in the politics as he was as a paramedic, probably more aggressive than some of his predecessors."

Of such matters, Bonfiglio speaks not at all.

"I never expected to be back in Rochester," he says. "But I’m very comfortable with my decision to come back here. I’m content to stay where I am. I could see myself staying here quite a while."

Thomas Bonfiglio
Title: Division general manager, Rochester, Rural/Metro Corp.
Education: B.A. in political science, St. John Fisher College, 1999; post-graduate Diplomado en Altos Estudios Nacionales, Bolivian Armed Forces University, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 2007; advanced terrorism and counterinsurgency post-graduate fellowship course, National Defense University Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, Fort McNair, Washington D.C., 2008
Family: Wife, Liliana; daughter Mia, 5
Residence: Pittsford
Quote: "It was 50-50 whether I’d be a cop or a paramedic."

4/30/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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