Fire Truculence

Is it a case of rogue firefighters or meddling city managers? Whatever it is, the Phoenix Fire Department isn't used to the scrutiny it's getting from City Hall.

Hoot Gibson was spending a few days at his vacation condo near San Diego when he got the call that changed his life--and ignited a controversy that still smolders between the Phoenix Fire Department and City Hall.

For 36 years, ever since he was 24 years old, Robert "Hoot" Gibson had been a Phoenix firefighter. When the phone rang in La Jolla in the summer of 1996, Gibson was a deputy fire chief, rumored to be the next assistant fire chief. Gibson's expertise and value were as a particularly adept scrounger. He was--still is--considered one of the best in the country at making sure a metropolitan fire department is well-stocked with everything from fire trucks to rubber boots.

That ended on September 16, 1996, about a decade too soon for Gibson, who had had no intention of giving up the life he loved just because someone had complained about the pranks he liked to pull at work.

A Wet Willie here and there. Maybe turn the lights off on someone in the bathroom. A pinch or a knuckle rub on an unsuspecting arm. Firehouse shenanigans, doled out with equal glee to both men and women.

The whistle-blower who did him in--a supplies clerk named Barbara Johnson whom Gibson had rejected for promotion--also told city managers that Gibson had paid about $5,000 in unearned overtime to firefighter trainees who weren't eligible for holiday pay. And that Gibson's son and wife were selling tee shirts out of a fire department shop.

Gibson believed he was simply helping out the young trainees who busted their butts trying to win a permanent job. And hadn't everyone known for years that Gibson's family, along with other private vendors, printed and displayed their tee shirts at the fire department clothing store? The pranks were just the kinds of things firefighters do to get through the day, he told a city investigator.

So it was with stunned bewilderment that Gibson found out long-distance that city officials were actually going to pursue criminal charges against him. The gut-wrenching fear of losing a long-earned pension turned to a bitter acceptance.

He never went back. Gibson retired. Too shattered even to clean out his desk, he asked friends to pack up the mementos of a lifetime and drop them off at his home in South Phoenix. He's now working a few hours a day helping the Mesa Fire Department purchase equipment.

Three months after Gibson left, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office confirmed what Gibson and his many firefighter friends had contended all along--that Gibson's actions, while inappropriate and perhaps even dumb, weren't criminal. His supporters argue that he shouldn't have been forced to retire.

So it's perhaps even more surprising that, a year later, the ghost of Hoot Gibson still haunts the Phoenix Fire Department.

Fire officials are still struggling to accommodate Barbara Johnson, the whistle-blower who took down Gibson. Meanwhile, she's filed more complaints about other perceived mistreatment. Her supervisor, a 10-year department employee and computer expert, quit last month in apparent frustration. A high-level committee of city and fire department managers has met regularly for the past year to make certain Johnson suffered no injustices.

"It has a life of its own," says Fire Chief Alan Brunacini. "It's sort of got outside the fire department."

It's also starting to cost taxpayers--more, in fact, than Gibson cost us when he overpaid the trainees. The department has spent about $12,000 on Johnson, most of it on computer equipment so she could work at home. That plan was recently nixed, however, after it turned out that the work she was to do at home wasn't really needed, according to fire department and city officials. (The computer will be put to use elsewhere.)

Brunacini also says the situation is taking a toll on his department managers who have spent considerable time and energy trying to work things out with Johnson.

Still, Brunacini--arguably the most respected fire chief in the nation--hasn't been willing to put out this particular fire. He says he has no idea when or how the Barbara Johnson affair will end.

"It's been managed by the committee," Brunacini says. "I could go to a committee meeting and ask that question. But I haven't."

Why not? Because there's a much larger and more politically sensitive tug of war going on between the fire department and the City Manager's Office. City Hall insiders and longtime fire department employees say it's been smoldering for a few years like a fire unseen in a basement, and that the Hoot Gibson incident is a flame that finally licked its way through the floor. More flames appear to be poking through.

In the past year or so, the fire department has had trouble getting seemingly worthwhile programs and equipment purchases past city budgeters. The department's health and fitness center, a Brunacini pet project that has been criticized as gold-plated by some in City Hall, is being audited for the second time in two years. Last month, for the first time ever, the City Manager's Office reached fairly deep into fire department ranks and overturned a decision to transfer a battalion chief to a different station. That battalion chief was Nick Brunacini, son of fire chief Alan. Some fire officials see that action as a direct assault on the chief, an escalation of what had been more subtle skirmishes.

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