By Matthew Hendley
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By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
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Phoenix Fire Department Chief Alan V. Brunacini likes to boast that getting into his department is as difficult as getting into medical school. The Phoenix Fire Department is, in many ways, an elite organization.
So it was no surprise that of the 1,709 people who showed up at Phoenix Civic Plaza to take the department's most recent written entrance exam, only half qualified for the next step: the arduous agility test--a series of physical trials that must be completed in less than seven minutes and 20 seconds. From there, about 700 prospective firefighters graduated to the oral interviews, the most crucial and most subjective part of the screening process. Of 700 hopefuls, only 175 were invited back for a second interview.
Earlier this summer, the results of the intense competition were announced: 24 recruits--a scant 1.4 percent of the pool--were hired and enrolled in the department's training academy. Sixteen were members of a minority group.
One of the elite two dozen was the fire chief's daughter, Candi Brunacini. She joins her two brothers, John and Robert, and a sister-in-law on the force. The five Brunacinis will earn about $220,000 in gross pay this year.
When the recruits were announced, the Phoenix Fire Department, known for its stratospheric morale, was suddenly home to some grumbling. Not only was this blatant nepotism, the detractors whispered, but Candi Brunacini was not physically fit for the job.
This is the type of problem that Pat Cantelme, powerful president of the firefighters' union, might be expected to address. However, Cantelme is the son of a firefighter himself, and one of the recruits hired this summer was Cantelme's own brother, Thomas, who joins Pat and a third brother, Joseph, on the force.
Besides the Brunacinis and Cantelmes, three other families welcomed new members to the ranks.
But in the face of what is apparently widespread nepotism, none of the powers at the Phoenix Fire Department or its union, the Phoenix Firefighters Association, is ducking for cover or blushing. Quite the contrary.
They point out that Candi Brunacini and Thomas Cantelme--and each of the estimated 200 firefighters who is related to someone else on the force--exceeded the exacting entrance requirements. No strings were pulled, department officials say.
"There are no secret handshakes," Pat Cantelme says. "If there were, it wouldn't have taken my brother six tries to make it."
The Phoenix Fire Department is cited as a model of progressivism and efficiency, a state-of-the-art department leading the way into the next century. Alan Brunacini, chief since 1978, is held in almost mythic esteem by his troops and by his peers nationwide. The firefighter-selection system is beyond reproach, the chief says. The City of Phoenix allows hiring of relatives, as long as one relative does not directly supervise another. It does so because nepotism is better than the alternative, he says. If a candidate were rejected because of a family member on the force, that would be discrimination.
Brunacini's right-hand man, assistant fire chief Dennis Compton--whose brother, Charles, is on the force--says the department's hands are tied.
"If we use nepotism as a reason not to hire people, I can tell you what I would advise those relatives to do," Compton says. "I would advise them to sue the living shit out of the city."
Furthermore, department leaders note, if the efficacy of the 1,275-member department is any measure, more government agencies should investigate the value of nepotism. Chief Brunacini calls it "an asset."
@body:Chief Brunacini is fond of saying there are no secrets at the Phoenix Fire Department. The brouhaha over the new recruit class certainly bears this out.
After New Times made one inquiry, word quickly spread through the fire department. There followed a flurry of calls from complainers who bemoaned a variety of ills inside the department. All the calls had two things in common: The complainants wouldn't give their names for the record, and they all thought the hiring of Candi Brunacini was a mistake.
One caller had just taken the fire department entrance exam for the eighth time. He hadn't made the cut.
"How can other people get on the job if everybody on this department has a relative on the job? They should try and make room for other people. The city should pass laws against this. Some municipalities have laws against the hiring of relatives."
The caller knows the department will insist that the entrance test is unbiased, but he believes that familiarity breeds favoritism--especially during the subjective oral interviews, which are conducted by department employees.
"I can't get on the job, because my last name isn't Brunacini," he says.
One current firefighter agrees, saying, "They can give you assurances, but if I'm on that interview group, there's no way I endanger my career by giving the chief's daughter a low score."
Chief Brunacini says such claims are absurd. The interview panels are drawn from a huge group of department staffers. He has no idea who interviewed his daughter, he says.
The fire chief and other administrators branded the callers--there were a dozen--cowards and chronic whiners who are not representative of the vast majority of the department. They are taking "free shots," department leaders say.