The Fire Inside

The family feud at the Phoenix Fire Department

Bob Khan and Nick Brunacini were high-school pals who became closer than brothers.

They played freshman football at Cortez High School, served as groomsmen at each other's weddings, and even lived together for a while. As young men, both joined the Phoenix Fire Department, where Nick's dad was chief. Both built successful careers and eventually rose to deputy chief.

In their high-school days, Khan was such a frequent guest that the Brunacinis regularly set an extra place at dinner. Later, when Khan and Nick became firefighters, they posed in uniform with Nick's younger brother, John, for a professionally shot "family picture" that for years hung proudly on a wall in the Brunacini home.

Mark Gartland
Alan Brunacini
Laura Segall
Alan Brunacini

So when Nick's dad, Alan Brunacini, retired last summer after 28 years as fire chief, many firefighters were happy that Khan was chosen to replace him. Chief Brunacini was greatly loved; by giving the job to his hand-picked successor, the city was keeping the job in the family.

But in the seven months since Khan took over, everything about his relationship with the Brunacinis has changed.

Nick Brunacini doesn't speak to his old friend anymore.

And 69-year-old Alan Brunacini — "Dad" not just to Nick and John, but to many firefighters — is in virtual exile from the department he built.

On Khan's first day on the job, he unveiled a department restructuring. He'd been working on it quietly for months, consulting union officials and private contractors, but never once discussed it with the old man.

No one could blame the new chief for setting up his own administration. But to the Brunacinis, the changes weren't a housecleaning.

They were a demolition.

Alan Brunacini was stunned to see his sons transferred, his best friend demoted, his training program scrapped. Even worse, the new chief told Brunacini that he'd have to stay away from the department he ran. Khan wanted the former chief to move on.

The fallout from that request has caused a deep rift in the once close-knit fire community — a rift that's ostensibly over how to run the department, but one that could never be only about the department.

Sure, Alan Brunacini frets that Khan's changes are wrecking the department that he built. But more than anything, the heart of the problem is that this is family.

Somehow, it's not surprising that Nick Brunacini has compared his former best friend to Fredo Corleone. To the Brunacinis, the new chief didn't just make personnel moves. He betrayed them. For his part, Khan won't even talk about his former best friend. He's clearly uncomfortable talking about his fallout with Alan, too.

Now even Phoenix firefighters who aren't close to Khan or Brunacini are paying attention to the feud. The forum page on a Web site started by Nick Brunacini,, has exploded with recriminations and has become a must-read in fire stations across the city.

Everybody's got a theory for what's transpired.

Some suggest that Khan had to remove all traces of his predecessor to make the job his own. Brunacini was one of the nation's most respected fire chiefs; filling his shoes would intimidate anyone. Khan may have been too insecure to deal with his lingering presence.

Others blame union officials, particularly the president of the United Phoenix Fire Association, Billy Shields. They say that by the time Brunacini retired, Shields could barely tolerate his presence — and that Khan's personnel moves have Shields' fingerprints all over them.

But others argue that the plan was the work of Pat Cantelme, Shields' predecessor in the union and now owner of a private ambulance company. In the past, Cantelme had his eye on the lucrative Phoenix ambulance market. Some believe that interest played into the department's restructuring, though Cantelme vehemently denies it.

Even Khan's most vocal accusers don't believe he's in it to make money. But they do suspect him of being used by people who are. Indeed, one fire department retiree who helped plan Khan's restructuring has been awarded a fat consulting contract.

Ultimately, though, this story isn't about money. It's about a band of brothers that's become bitterly divided.

Friends says that Alan Brunacini and his wife, Rita, are shocked by Khan's actions.

"Bobby was just like one of his kids. And that was the most tragic thing to both of them, Alan and Rita both," explains Robert "Hoot" Gibson, one of Alan's best friends, who himself was affected by Khan's personnel changes.

"What Bobby has done to them — it shouldn't be that way. It didn't have to be that way. And it just tore those two up."

At 5'7", Alan Brunacini is a short man. But in national fire service circles — and yes, these circles really do exist — Alan Brunacini is a giant.

He wrote the Bible of fire command training, the aptly named Fire Command, along with four other books. He was Governing magazine's "public official of the year," and was inducted in the hall of fame for Arizona State University's school of public programs. Chairman of the National Fire Protection Association for five years, he still chairs its committee that sets national standards for deployment.

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John Bateman-Ferry
John Bateman-Ferry

Chief Khan's behavior is similar to that of manager's that are very insecure in both their ability to lead and manage. Behaviors such as making major changes immediately upon taking responsibility...of an organization that by all estimates was not just good but exemplary. These included staffing changes which under a new leader is natural but they usually only include direct reports and personal assistants. They rarely include trainers (Brunacini's sons John & Nick) or vehicle repair staff (Brunacini's best friend Hoot Gibson). Finally, a third strike against Chief Khan in my eyes are these seeming sweetheart deals to friends and advisers (Mr. Compton, Mr. Compton's assistant, and potentially Mr. Cantelme if talked about ambulance services get changed). While these are alleged to be legal(though without Ass.t Manager Washington's input are unable to be corroborated) the best leaders go out of their way to avoid all appearances of impropriety.

These facts while not necessarily indicative of Mr. Khan's leadership of the Phoenix Fire Department are frequently indicative of an insecure leader. A leader who needs to make wholesale changes and court favor from others who more often support to disguise their currying favor. All to shore-up a weak ego, weak management skills, or more likely lack of confidence in one's ability to lead.

It is unfortunate and saddening that what Chief Brunacini and the firefighters of the Phoenix Fire Department built over decades was so quickly dismantled. I feel what's sadder still is the relationship that the Brunacinis'; Mom, Bruno, John and Nick built with Bob Khan over decades was just as quickly dismantled.

tom hannan
tom hannan

I have been on the job since 1964, I have had family ties to the service and it was all I ever wanted to do. And in all these years,I have resisted any aspirations to be anything in our department. Something always caught my eye and I just decided to consider it later a better time. There is a lot of visible stuff that makes the job seem so desirable, a lot of attention and a great deal of window dressing. But I would sit and pay attention to the behind the scenes activities...the stuff most people do not see or listen to. The signals I got were tiny but they always told me NOT to move yet. Don't think of it and wait. Now I am at a point and age where I have to say, that I am happy to be a nobody---I come in and go home---no hard feelings, no regrets, no feelings about any administration. I probably would be eaten alive by what transpired in Phoenix and a lot of other places. I am happy to say I have seen them come and go plenty of times. Ruin things in the name of new ideas. I never thought I would see fire service lay offs in the 70s and all the other earth shattering happenings over the years. I guess shake ups will just happen. But I am still here---driving the truck and doing the same old lowly house duties, no ulcers, no heart problems, no hard feelings, no meetings , no budgets, no mayors, nothing but the happiness connected to the greatest job I could have ever had. I see the new people coming on and don't even have the energy to tell them what it used to be like and how much the job can mean to them. I only hope they are smart enough to see what goes on behind the closed doors. I hope they can smile when they come to work and then smile at the end of the shift. Someday I want to just walk away and find something else to do and not regret a day as a firefighter.


beavis you're a dumbass.



Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith

I have had several opportunities to visit Phoenix Fire Dept. and to meet Chief Brunacini. I am very sorry to hear that anyone would treat a brother Firefighter the way Chief Brunacini has been. It doesn't say much for Phoenix's local or the new fire chief. I think in time we will see the demise of Phoenix Fire Dept. as a trend setter for other departments. Only time will tell but I am willing to bet the new chief will not make anywhere close to 28 years. Several years ago on one of my visits to Phoenix I met a firefighter that referred to individuals he was not partically fond of as "sniveling pukes" It looks to me like there are still "sniveling pukes" at Phoenix Fire, mostley in the upper structure. What a shame!!

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