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.

For its part, the City Manager's Office says the fire department is overreacting and that it is treated no differently from any other city department. Firefighters are used to being worshiped as shining knights who save people from burning buildings, and the Hoot Gibson incident tarnished that image; fire can't take the heat that other agencies, like the police department, have long been used to, city managers say.

By all accounts, the point of ignition seems to be two very strong personalities--the innovative and independent longtime fire chief, Alan Brunacini, and the smart, articulate, ambitious assistant city manager, Sheryl Sculley, now second in command at City Hall.

He has run the fire department for 20 years, building it into one of the country's best. Next month, he'll share the dais with the mayor of Chicago and the governor of Wisconsin, among others, to be honored by Governing magazine as one of the top public officials of 1997. Brunacini has won national respect not only for his knowledge of fighting fires--he wrote a widely used textbook on fire command procedures--but also because of his skill at dealing with the city's strongest union and for the cutting-edge programs he's implemented. He insists on the flexibility to make his own decisions, whether it's where to deploy a piece of equipment at a fire scene or how to spend a million dollars of his budget.

She is his antithesis, Margaret to his Dennis the Menace. Since 1990, except for a year spent as chief of staff to the mayor, Sculley has been the top assistant to City Manager Frank Fairbanks. She is viewed with cautious respect by City Hall insiders who say she is very honest, very fair and very controlling. They won't say it for attribution, though, because they're also afraid of her and the considerable clout they say she wields.

"I have a reputation of dealing with issues directly," Sculley says. "I am considered to be a no-nonsense manager. People know I'm not going to look the other way."

Sculley downplays her role in overseeing the fire department and says she is surprised that people so clearly see her as a flashpoint. She suggests that people are confusing her with Marsha Wallace, the deputy city manager--a step below Sculley in the chain of command--who supervises the fire department in addition to several other agencies.

Yet it was Sculley who, at Fairbanks' request, chaired a special task force that spent several months reviewing fire department operations in the aftermath of the Hoot Gibson incident. Her group recommended changes in the way the department handles purchasing and other procedures.

And she is the city's budget goddess, with oversight of budgets for all city departments. That puts her in a prime position to tweak Brunacini in a critical spot--his spending habits.

Brunacini, too, is uncomfortable talking about the bigger picture. But, he acknowledges, "I think there is a backdrop in this. I think it is about getting more control over the fire department."

And he's clearly steamed at the notion of more and more people looking over his shoulder. "We have so many auditors around here, they have their own coffee cups," he remarks.

"The auditors said to us once, 'It appears you'll just do anything for a firefighter.' And I said, 'Thank you. I will.'"

Brunacini runs his department the way he directs at a fire scene. Quick on his feet, moving men and machines where needed, putting cash into a program or a problem the way he'd dump water on a hot spot. He is pointedly hands-off whenever possible, and encourages his staff, from the greenest recruit to the savviest manager, to think creatively and seize the initiative.

There's no better example of the Brunacini-style management and what it has wrought than the program that puts social workers on the scene of a tragedy through the use of "alternative response" vans.

The program was started about three years ago after fire officials grew discouraged with the lack of help they were getting from ComCare, the mental-health agency. ComCare was supposed to send counselors to fire and accident scenes as needed, to help people deal with the aftermath of, say, the drowning of a child or the loss of their home.

But, says Steve Storment, the deputy chief who now oversees the program, ComCare staffers were slow to show up, and fire officials often found their engines and crews sitting at scenes hours longer than they should have been.

So a fire captain came up with the idea of partnering fire department emergency medical technicians with social-work majors from Arizona State University. Money for the vans and EMTs was scavenged from existing department funds, Storment says.

In May 1996, city budget officials told the department to stop all spending on the program. Storment says he was told that the city believed the state, not the city, was responsible for providing counseling.

In typical fashion, the department decided to keep doing it anyway. For the past year, the program has been manned solely by volunteers who now number about 150. They put in an average of 24 hours a week. The volunteers, mainly from ASU, recruit and train other volunteers.

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