The Fire Inside

The family feud at the Phoenix Fire Department

Fairbanks said no. In a November 2005 letter to Brunacini, Fairbanks wrote that the law department had concluded that Brunacini's chosen retirement date was "irrevocable."

As it turns out, the city could have gotten around the rules. Police Chief Jack Harris retired just after Brunacini, under the same system. But before Harris was out the door, the city announced that he'd be returning as an assistant city manager. Since it's a new job, Harris won't lose a cent of his pension.

Fairbanks says that the city's willingness to rehire the 57-year-old Harris was no slam on Brunacini. "Frankly, we didn't think of this in Bruno's case," he says.

Robert "Hoot" Gibson says that Chief Khan’s actions broke his best friend’s heart.
Laura Segall
Robert "Hoot" Gibson says that Chief Khan’s actions broke his best friend’s heart.
Pat Cantelme, the former president of the firefighters union, met with Khan before the transition.
Giulio Sciorio
Pat Cantelme, the former president of the firefighters union, met with Khan before the transition.

So on July 31, 2006, Brunacini retired.

There was all the expected hoopla. Pat Cantelme, the former union president, gave Bruno an antique fire hydrant from Scotland. Chiefs from around the country praised him. Mayor Phil Gordon named Brunacini "fire chief emeritus," making it clear that he'd be there to lend a hand to his old department.

The city manager, after all, had chosen Bob Khan — the man Brunacini had supported as his successor. This was the boy, now 48, who'd been best pals with Bruno's son Nick. This was the sixth plate at the Brunacini table for so many dinners.

As Bruno himself joked at his retirement party, when Khan first showed up at dinner, the chief asked his wife if he'd forgotten that he had an extra kid. Khan, he said, "looked like one of ours."

Over the years, Bruno told the hundreds in attendance, Khan had become like one of theirs, like family.

That was July 31. Then came August.

For more than a decade before he became fire chief, Bob Khan was the public face of the Phoenix Fire Department. That's because Alan Brunacini wasn't interested in working the media — and because Khan was genuinely good at it.

A solid fireplug of a man, Khan has stunning blue eyes and two adorable young daughters he and his wife adopted from China. He comes across as the kind of guy that people wish their sisters would marry: dependable, nice, sincere.

Thanks to his work on TV, Khan has higher name recognition than his former boss — higher, too, than elected officials in town. That would have given Sheriff Joe Arpaio heart palpitations; Brunacini didn't care.

So when a nationwide search for Bruno's replacement ended with Khan winning the job, few people in the fire department imagined that much difficulty lay ahead.

"I was Bob Khan's biggest fan," Brunacini says. "There were only three people closer to me than he was, and that's my three kids. Really, he was one of my kids . . . I was extremely optimistic about Khan becoming fire chief, because I thought we'd have continuity with the way we'd done things for 25 years."

In the three months after Khan was chosen as chief and before Bruno was set to retire, Brunacini says that the two men continued to work nearly side by side. And Brunacini thought they were on the same page.

But on his first day as chief, Khan unveiled a major reorganization.

As Nick Brunacini would later write in a column for Fire Rescue Magazine, when he first heard Khan describe a series of organizational changes, effective immediately, "I thought he was pulling my chain."

Khan wasn't.

On Nick Brunacini's Web site, they call it "Black Tuesday." (Nick, who still works for the fire department, has declined comment for this story.)

A shift commander without much experience in operations was suddenly running that department. The operations guy, meanwhile, was transferred to personnel. The man who shift commanders used to report to became deputy fire marshal. Chains of command across the board were shuffled.

The moves immediately affected the Brunacini family. John Brunacini, who'd been injured on the job years ago, had been assigned to teach classes at the department's Command Training Center (CTC).

Those classes were canceled indefinitely — a blow not just to John but to his father. Though the union griped about the CTC, complaining it was a waste of time, it was Alan Brunacini's baby.

And the CTC didn't just serve Phoenix. All departments in the Valley participated. Several chiefs say they were surprised to hear that training had been canceled.

"The CTC was a very valuable tool for us," says Glendale Fire Chief Mark Burdick, who stresses that he's friends with both Khan and Brunacini. "Did it come to a surprise to us when it was shut down? Yes. I don't think people anticipated that."

Nick Brunacini, who had also been assigned to the CTC, was transferred downtown — a lateral move, but one with far less interesting work.

Brunacini's best friend, Hoot Gibson, the department's fleet manager, was moved, too.

Complaints from an underling had resulted in Gibson resigning under fire in 1996. (See "Fire Truculence," by Patti Epler, November 13, 1997.) But he'd returned to the department in 2002 and been rated "excellent" by his supervisors, records show.

On Khan's first day, Gibson found himself unceremoniously transferred to a station in Laveen. He was installed in an office without a computer — or a fully functional phone.

He was given one task in six months: to write a report that took all of four hours.

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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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