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.

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.

They work round-the-clock shifts out of two fire stations. Besides a bed, the fire department provides the vans along with gas, oil and maintenance.

So far this year, the vans have answered 4,000 calls, up from 2,000 the year before. It's still an outlaw program, operating without the fiscal blessing of the city budget office.

Last fall, the Phoenix Police Department came up with the idea to have the fire department vans respond to domestic-violence calls, which the fire department wouldn't necessarily already be rolling on. The two agencies worked out an agreement where, for $68,000 from the police budget, the fire department would arrange for enough additional staff and vans to handle another 2,500 police calls.

That was supposed to start in January. Nearly a year later, the proposal has yet to get the go-ahead from City Hall, despite prodding from both agencies.

Storment says the fire department has no intention of dropping its current program; it just can't pick up the police calls without the added dollars.

Sculley, who oversees the city's budget, says she's not heard much about the police-fire proposal even though it's apparently been floating around for nearly a year and has been on the city council agenda more than once. She says she was briefed on the vans only two weeks ago by the fire department.

Marsha Wallace, the deputy city manager, is familiar with the proposal. It's been hung up, she says, while city officials look into coordinating "victims' assistance" programs throughout the city--the city prosecutor's office, for example, also works with crime victims. "There's several different tracks going on and a lot of confusion," she says. "We need to be able to communicate to the community what we're going to be doing and how we're going to be doing it and not raise expectations."

Wallace says she doesn't know why it's taken most of the past year to work out the coordination problem. "I recognize there's some frustration anytime something takes a little bit of extra time."

That's especially true of the firefighters, she suggests, because "they're used to getting there fast."

The Phoenix Fire Department also has a reputation for getting there first. The agency likes to lead the rest of the country, whether it's getting to fires within four minutes, putting a piece of equipment to work in an innovative way or conceiving a new program.

Ten years ago, the department opened its "wellness center" as an in-house medical clinic that focused on the physical problems peculiar to firefighters. It's headed by a doctor, a toxicologist who specializes in work-related exposures like tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV. Every year, firefighters are put through much more extensive testing than they'd get from a routine private physical. And it focuses on the things most likely to go wrong with people who fight fires for a living, from the capacity of their lungs to the strength of their hearts.

Now housed on the first floor of the department's new headquarters building at 150 South 12th Street, the health center has evolved into a combination clinic, testing and fitness facility that is envied--and copied to varying degrees--by fire departments across the country.

The center is another example of Brunacini doing what he thinks is best for the department--and stepping on some toes at City Hall in the process. It's created some hard feelings within the city bureaucracy. No other city agency has nearly the extensive testing and screening program in use at the fire department. And it's being reviewed for the second time in two years, scrutiny that rankles fire officials.

Sculley says the health center came to her attention last year when she chaired the post-Hoot Gibson task force. A whistle-blower complained about a company called Strength Training that was providing physical-therapy services for the center. The company is owned by a former Glendale firefighter, and the informant suggested the contract was improperly issued. The review didn't find any wrongdoing, but it raised some questions about bid procedures that the city auditor wanted to explore in a second audit, she says.

Sculley also says the fire department health center now spends about $150,000 more per year for industrial health than it had in the past.

Brunacini says the center was built within the department's budget, cobbled together over several years. "Does it make much sense to spend $115 million on firefighters and then not maintain them?" he says. "I worked in this department a lot of years where you'd spend money on changing the oil on a fire truck and not 10 cents on a firefighter."

He notes that the cost of operating the center is heavily outweighed by the money the city saves on healthy firefighters, particularly in disability costs.

In 1996, for instance, the fire department had four employees on disability retirement at an annual cost of $100,364; the police department had 32 at a cost of $720,523.

The fire department, which has about 1,200 firefighters, had a "loss time" rate of 175.2 hours for 1995-96, compared to the San Francisco Fire Department with about 1,300 firefighters and a loss-time rate of 822 hours over the same period, according to figures provided by the Phoenix department.

Brunacini and others credit the health center with keeping firefighters physically fit and thus less injury-prone. And when they do get hurt, the workout equipment and therapy programs get them back on the job much faster, they say.

"I have no doubt in my mind it saved my life," says Mike Bielecki, a firefighter who's on leave now while he works as a policy adviser for Governor Jane Hull.

Bielecki was feeling fine when he went to the center for his required routine physical a year ago. Doctors were worried about a heart murmur and convinced a reluctant Bielecki to get checked out by a specialist. He did, and the heart doctor discovered a blocked valve. Bielecki says he was told he'd have been dead in two years if the problem hadn't been caught and treated.

Bielecki sees the health center not only as a way for the public to get the most from its firefighters, but as "an act of good faith to the firefighters who are willing to put themselves in harm's way."

Nick Brunacini, the chief's son, has been with the department for 18 years. His sister, his brother and a sister-in-law are also Phoenix firefighters.

Nick was recently promoted to battalion chief, but not until the City Manager's Office reviewed test scores and investigated the department's past practices in promoting off the list of eligible candidates.

In August, city personnel manager Don Walsh notified fire officials that a new policy for "making personnel decisions regarding the relatives of employees in management positions" was to be followed. Starting with the pending battalion-chief promotion, Walsh--not fire officials--would make a recommendation to City Manager Frank Fairbanks, who would then make the selection.

Four days later, Walsh issued another memo, this one to Fairbanks recommending that Nick Brunacini be given the promotion. Brunacini was at the top of the promotion list with a score of 90.3216; his closest competition had a score of 87.6987. Walsh noted that it had been the department's practice to take the candidate from the top of the list, unless the top choice had demonstrated a lack of ability for the job, for instance, by serving in an acting capacity and not performing well.

Nick Brunacini was deemed fully capable and given the promotion. So it was a surprise to the younger Brunacini and his superiors when, just two months later, City Hall again reached down and this time blocked the transfer of Brunacini to another fire station.

The reassignment was not strictly routine; the battalion-chief job at the central station paid a bit more money than those at other stations and had a lot more action--scheduling fire crews as well as fighting fires. But Brunacini was well-qualified because he'd earlier served an eight-month internship at the station doing the job. It's the kind of assignment that leads higher up the management ladder. That kind of assignment had always been made without so much as the batting of an eyelash at City Hall, according to fire officials.

Brunacini's friends say it's another slap at the department administered by Sheryl Sculley.

Sculley says she's heard from Marsha Wallace that "this is an issue," but that she knows nothing else about it.

Wallace says the City Manager's Office does get complaints about nepotism in the fire department, "so we have to take extra special care that we're not doing anybody any special favors."

The City Manager's Office realized it was time to come up with a policy on promoting family members, Wallace says, because firefighters' sons and daughters, the Brunacinis included, are now getting to an age and stage in their careers that they're reaching the higher ranks.

She says the city manager promoted Nick Brunacini because his father couldn't.

As for the reassignment to the central station, "We are suggesting that there should be more structure to that process so other people who want it can apply."

Crafting a new policy for command officers was easy for City Hall. What to do about a low-ranking supplies clerk turned data processor is proving more difficult. Especially when she's a union member and protected by a ream of state and federal employment laws.

In fact, before Marsha Wallace gets into the details of the Barbara Johnson affair, she reels off what sounds like a classroom lecture in labor law. "Today, more than ever for government officials . . . the job of supervisor is extremely complicated and difficult," Wallace says.

There are new laws covering family leave, disabilities and fair labor standards. And Barbara Johnson, as evidenced in the stack of grievances filed with the city and the e-mails on fire department and City Hall computers, knows the laws as well as any city administrator. She has written lengthy missives that cite sections of federal laws Johnson thought fire officials were ignoring.

Johnson did not return numerous phone messages left on her home answering machine for this story. Earlier this year, she circulated a letter to city council members and the media, including New Times, asking for help in pursuing her complaints.

In May, she e-mailed Barbara Koffron at the fire department personnel department, apparently to clear up some confusion over Johnson's belief that she was being harassed.

"Let there be no mistake," Johnson wrote, "it is my belief that 'retaliation' has been both present and constant since September 1996 [Gibson's ouster] through the present."

Johnson has worked for the city since 1982, moving to the fire department in the mid-1980s. She began working for Gibson in 1989 in the Resource Management Division and received generally good job reviews.

In June 1995, not long after she was passed over for promotion to a supervisor position in Gibson's division, Johnson took extended leave, returning to work in March 1996. City and fire officials won't say why Johnson was on leave, but the slew of e-mails and grievances suggests Johnson suffers from stress-related problems. She sometimes left work in the middle of the day, saying she just needed to get away from the office.

Johnson first complained about Gibson's behavior and questionable management practices to fire officials, who started an internal investigation in February 1996. But the process wasn't moving quickly enough, in Johnson's opinion, so, two months later, she called Marsha Wallace at the City Manager's Office.

"I got an upset phone call--in tears--wanting to talk about the fire department," Wallace recalls. She took the call because of her role overseeing the personnel department; it wasn't until much later in the year--and the investigation--that Fairbanks assigned Wallace to oversee the fire department. Wallace says the assignment was a routine rotation and not because anyone in the City Manager's Office thought the department needed more scrutiny.

Wallace met with Johnson. "We listened to her for a long, long, long time," Wallace says. "She did have a number of issues, and we determined to check into them."

The City Manager's Office decided to take the investigation away from the fire department's internal affairs staff and turn it over to an outside private investigator. The city paid about $16,000 to Investigative Research Incorporated of Phoenix and, after four months of inquiry, got back an eight-volume, 320-page report that failed to substantiate most of the complaints raised primarily by Johnson but also by a couple other employees.

It was the first time the city had turned to an outside private investigative firm for help on an internal problem, according to assistant city attorney Michael Hamblin.

Fire officials say the unprecedented nature of the inquiry bolsters their claims of hyperscrutiny. But Hamblin says there are other outside investigations of other city departments currently in the works that are of a similar scale. He won't say which agencies until the investigations are finished.

And while fire officials were smarting from an outside investigator poking around their department, Johnson continued to assail them.

From about June 1996 on, most of Johnson's e-mails to fire officials are pointedly copied to key City Hall executives, including Marsha Wallace, city attorney Roderick McDougall and personnel director Don Walsh. Later, as her electronic peppering of the fire department continued, she sometimes added Fairbanks, Sculley and Mayor Skip Rimsza to the CCs at the bottom.

While Johnson irritated fire officials by making a point of her access to City Hall, she also wasn't shy about letting her superiors know she was filing formal complaints.

"I'll be going to the doctor at 3:15," she wrote in a February 14 e-mail. "But before I go, I'll be going over to EOD to file a discrimination complaint . . . leaving at 1:30 for that."

A month later, Johnson wrote a fire department personnel officer asking him for the appropriate grievance forms. "Ten or 15 of the initial forms will be sufficient," she wrote, "and 20 to 30 of the appeal forms will do."

Johnson filed a grievance over not getting the Resource Management promotion in October 1996, about a month after Gibson was forced out. That grievance was ultimately dismissed.

She's also filed several new grievances this year, all of which have been rejected. One sought more than $100,000 in back "stand-by" pay because she carried a department pager for six years.

Wallace contends that, far from letting Johnson and her complaints get out of control, the City Manager's Office is working hard to keep the simmering situation under control. Johnson has threatened to sue the city; she had a lawyer representing her during some of the Hoot Gibson investigation.

In May, Johnson was assigned to work as a data-entry operator under the supervision of Chris Covey, a computer specialist who had been with the department 10 years and was key in setting up its records-management system.

Covey resigned last month, telling friends at the fire department he just couldn't take the stress of dealing with Johnson anymore.

"I've decided not to make any public statements about me leaving," Covey said in a voice mail to New Times on October 1. "The reasons are upsetting to me, and I've done a lot of thought and prayer over leaving a job I've had for over 10 years."

E-mails between Johnson, Covey, other supervisors and city administrators show increasing frustration on Covey's part, not only with Johnson's work--which he considered inadequate--but also with what he saw as personal attacks against him, including a threat to sue him and the city.

"The data entry work that Barbara Johnson has been doing appears to be inaccurate to the point of making the data unusable," Covey wrote to his bosses on July 18. He asked for direction, adding, "I do not want to be required to provide additional time and resources to an individual that is insubordinate to me, as her supervisor, and disruptive at the workplace."

Covey also complained that Johnson spent much of her work time writing the lengthy e-mails to fire and city officials. They argued over a number of issues, from leave slips to the tone of his voice, according to e-mails from Johnson and Covey. He eventually prepared a detailed log that included how frequently he saw her using her work computer to write e-mails and his growing frustration over her performance and attitude.

Still, fire officials--who had for months been meeting regularly with city managers and attorneys to discuss Johnson--agreed to let her work from home. In previous months, they had rearranged her office cubicle at Johnson's request because she was uncomfortable with the way it was arranged. At one point, they considered putting mirrors up around her desk because of her concerns over retaliation from the Gibson investigation.

Johnson began working out of her home in late August, using her own computer. The department spent about $12,000 on new computer equipment and phone lines to improve Johnson's home office, but then never actually installed the equipment.

Instead, partly because of problems with Johnson's work, the department last month decided it could get the data entered into the computer in a different way, and Johnson's "pilot program" has been discontinued, according to Hamblin, the assistant city attorney, and Sharon Marksbury, management services administrator for the department.

Whether Johnson will return to work at the department is unclear. And neither Brunacini nor Marksbury nor Wallace knows what the city will do next to accommodate her.

"Our intent is to make Barbara a productive part of the Phoenix Fire Department," says Marksbury. "Where that ends up, I can't tell you.

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