The Fire Inside

The family feud at the Phoenix Fire Department

As a speaker, Brunacini has long been much in demand. His "conversation" at the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference, hosted by Fire Engineering Magazine, consistently sells out. Even after the air conditioning died one year, the magazine's editor, Bobby Halton, reports that people lined the aisles.

In Phoenix, though, Alan Brunacini was just Bruno. He didn't need to see his name in the papers. Didn't care about going to City Council meetings, or, really, about schmoozing at all — neither giving schmooze nor receiving it.

He's so uninterested in celebrity that he once sat next to Jay Leno on a plane and had to ask why other passengers were requesting Leno's autograph. Curious in turn about the fire manual Brunacini was reading, Leno asked whether Bruno worked for the fire department.

Bob Khan, John Brunacini, and Nick Brunacini: A "family" photo from happier times.
courtesy of Rita Brunacini
Bob Khan, John Brunacini, and Nick Brunacini: A "family" photo from happier times.
Fire Chief Bob Khan
Fire Chief Bob Khan

Brunacini's reply was characteristically low-key. He never mentioned he was the chief. He simply said, "I do."

"He's a brilliant man," says Kathi Hilms, Brunacini's longtime secretary. (She retired from the city in January.) "But he's just not knowledgeable about some things. Stars, sports figures — he had no interest."

Born in Jamestown, New York, and raised in New Mexico, Bruno joined the Phoenix department in 1958 and advanced through its ranks, becoming chief in 1978. He stayed another 28 years.

He's uninterested in luxury. He wears Hawaiian shirts just about everywhere, and he and his wife have lived in the same modest ranch house in northwest Phoenix since 1958. (Both sons and their wives settled within blocks of the family homestead.) He's spent the last 25 years puttering around his garage with his dearest friend, Hoot Gibson, restoring an old fire engine.

Brunacini had the same secretary all 28 years. His executive assistant chief, Bob Cantwell, recalls that during one ten-year run, his top staff suffered not a single personnel change.

Throughout his career, Brunacini hammered the same points, focusing on the paramount importance of customer service. Every firefighter, from Cantwell to the lowliest trainee, can talk about "Mrs. Smith," the prototypical Phoenix resident that Brunacini called on them to serve.

But Bruno also loved the technical stuff. After Phoenix firefighter Bret Tarver died in a huge blaze in 2001, Brunacini assembled a training base, the Command Training Center, in an abandoned station on 27th Avenue. The goal was to train mid-level managers to manage the big crises that come so infrequently in cities like Phoenix, but can be catastrophic when they do. The CTC used multiple video screens to simulate fires, and commanders got experience making important judgment calls.

The place drew visitors from as far as Taiwan. Departments from Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, to Henderson, Nevada, built centers of their own based on Brunacini's model.

He had his critics. He clashed with former assistant city manager Sheryl Sculley. She wanted control; he chafed under her attempts to get it.

And while Brunacini worked well with Pat Cantelme, who presided over the firefighters union for 20 years, he didn't dance quite so well with Cantelme's hand-picked successor, Billy Shields. Cantelme is all about the endgame; Shields is more mercurial. His feelings get hurt. And Bruno could be sarcastic.

For years, too, there were rumors of nepotism. Fire departments like Phoenix are full of familiar names and old high-school cliques; it seems that everyone who joins has an uncle or dad already in the business. All three Brunacini kids joined the Phoenix Fire Department, even daughter Candi — and Candi's gender, if nothing else, gave the old-school guys something to gripe about. It didn't help that Nick Brunacini rose to deputy chief.

But people who took the time to investigate the situation concluded that it was nothing nefarious: Nick Brunacini is good at his work. Candi Brunacini, too, is a capable firefighter (See "Like Father, Like Daughter," by Jeremy Voas, August 25, 1993).

Under Brunacini, Phoenix earned a national reputation. It's so frequently praised, it's difficult to remember how lowly the city's fire department was, pre-Brunacini.

The old-timers haven't forgotten.

Tom Healy, chief of the Daisy Mountain Fire District that borders Phoenix's west side, came to work for Phoenix in 1970 after a run in California.

"We had shoddy equipment and not much training," Healy recalls. "I'd go visit my friends in California and they had nice shiny stuff. I'd think, 'Doggone it, it's embarrassing to say what department I'm from.' But it wasn't too long after Alan Brunacini became fire chief that you were proud to say you were from Phoenix."

In 2001, Alan Brunacini announced that he would retire in the summer of 2006.

Under the state's optional plan for safety workers, longtime firefighters who name their retirement date years in advance can add richly to their pension. The idea, says Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks, is to give experienced workers a reason to stay on the job. Setting the date in advance also helps the city plan for openings.

But when his personal D-Day grew closer, Brunacini began to have second thoughts. In the fall of 2005, he wrote Fairbanks to say he'd changed his mind. He wanted to stay.

By opting out of the program, Brunacini says, he'd lose $185,000 in retirement benefits.

But Bruno didn't care about the money. He just wanted to stay on as chief.

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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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