She has crystal-blue eyes, long, wavy hair and the healthy tan of an outdoors lover. She has a warm, confident manner and expresses herself well. Even firefighters who don't believe she's worthy of the force agree that she is a delightful person.

Contrary to descriptions provided by her nameless detractors--one claimed she stood five-foot-two and weighed 200 pounds--Candi Brunacini is not unfit to fight fires. She has the stocky--but not unfeminine--build one would expect from years of ranch work.

When she lived on the ranch, the work agreed with her. "I loved working hard. I liked the physical part of it," she says. Other aspects of her life in Colorado might make the challenges she faces as a firefighter seem trivial. "It was hard to deal with the people. They viewed women as less than nothing," she says. "It was like they were stuck in the third century. They were a long ways from self-actualization."

She left her husband and returned to Phoenix three years ago. She had no job, no college education and two children to support. She was desperate, so she did what came naturally. She enrolled in fire-science courses at Phoenix College and took a job as a civilian employee in the fire department's alarm room. To avoid the appearance of impropriety, she says, she was paid at a lesser rate than her peers.

Like so many other firefighters, she did not get in on her first try. Although she had worked with a professional trainer to prepare for the agility test a year ago, she failed. She got ready for her second attempt by training all year with her brother John, practicing the specific tasks required on the physical test.

This time, she breezed through, finishing with nearly two and a half minutes to spare. She wants everyone who doubts her to know that she scored in the low 80s on the written exam--the cutoff is 68--and a 99 on her oral interviews.

She also wants them to know she was rated second among the 24 recruits who entered the academy--that translates, actually, to second among the 1,709 who sought entry.

Candi Brunacini grew up with the Phoenix Fire Department. She has heard of its tribulations and triumphs around the dinner table and in late-night chats.

"I remember how hard it was for my father, how hard he worked," she says. "You think these changes in the department just happened miraculously, and it's always been this good? When Dad became chief, it was not only the most dangerous profession to be in, it was also one of the worst organizations in the world--poorly managed, poorly run."
She believes those days are long gone.
"Last night at the fire, I was so impressed with these big downtown guys, but at the same time, they were completely professional. It's an amazing balance, and these are amazing people."
@body:The normally professorial and loquacious Alan Brunacini is stiff and brooding as he and Dennis Compton sit down to educate a reporter about department hiring practices. Brunacini is answering questions with questions. Compton is doing most of the talking.

Brunacini, 56, has given 35 years to the Phoenix Fire Department. He's done too much for his city and his profession to endure questions about nepotism, in general, and his own family, in particular. He is disturbed that a few of his loyal troops have involved outsiders in the department's internal affairs.

His pique is understandable. His career is a true success story. Alan Brunacini is to firefighting what Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina is to college basketball: Mr. Team Player, Mr. Respect.

Since he became chief in 1978, Brunacini has created what arguably is the most effective, most problem-free department in the city. He's overseeing a $95 million budget this year. He holds a master's degree in political science. He literally wrote the book on firefighting techniques, Fire Command, and is in great demand as a lecturer.

Labor-management problems are rife in the firefighting world. But thanks to the diligence and genius of Brunacini and union head Pat Cantelme, labor problems at the Phoenix Fire Department are virtually nonexistent. The department is free of ugly negotiations and threats of strikes. When city budgeters threatened to lop two ladder companies from the department in 1992, management and the union convinced the entire department to take unpaid furloughs, saving 26 firefighting jobs. Incredibly, no firefighter grievance has required outside intervention in 14 years. Problems are resolved in-house.

The harmonious relationship with the union solidified a decade ago, when Brunacini and his troops withstood a withering attack launched by then-chief of police Ruben Ortega. The fire department was riddled with drugs, Ortega alleged, and Brunacini had stolen department property. The fire department's image was bruised for a while, but it quickly healed. Brunacini and his department quickly regained their stature. Ortega is gone. Brunacini is still here.

Brunacini has revolutionized firefighting. His department was in the vanguard for requiring breathing apparatus for all firefighters. He fought to get the department into the ambulance business, convinced skeptics--many in his own department--that it was best equipped to serve the needs of the community.

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