The Fire Inside

The family feud at the Phoenix Fire Department

"That was a long six months," Gibson says now. "That is just not in my makeup. I wanted to be productive."

In January, Gibson retired.

"If they had come to me and said, 'Hoot, you don't fit the plan,' I would have said, 'Bobby, I'll do what you want me to,'" Gibson says. "You would have thought they would have told me, 'We need a guy to take your place. We need you to tutor him.' You'd think they'd pick a guy's brain — I'd only done the job since 1975!"

Billy Shields, president of the firefighters’ union, clashed with Chief Brunacini. Some firefighters wonder whether the edict for Brunacini to stay away from his former department came from Shields.
Giulio Sciorio
Billy Shields, president of the firefighters’ union, clashed with Chief Brunacini. Some firefighters wonder whether the edict for Brunacini to stay away from his former department came from Shields.
A band of brothers during happier times, at John Brunacini’s wedding: From left to right, Phoenix Fire Captain Mark Angle, former Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini, John Brunacini, Nick Brunacini, and current Fire Chief Bob Khan
courtesy of the Brunacini famliy
A band of brothers during happier times, at John Brunacini’s wedding: From left to right, Phoenix Fire Captain Mark Angle, former Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini, John Brunacini, Nick Brunacini, and current Fire Chief Bob Khan

It wasn't only Gibson's brain that went unpicked. Brunacini's did, too.

During the first week of his retirement, the former chief had breakfast with Chief Khan. There he learned that it wasn't just about Hoot, or his sons.

"You have to go away, and stay away for a while," Khan said.

Mayor Phil Gordon had told Phoenix magazine that Brunacini would get an office in the fire department. But that, clearly, wasn't happening. (Gordon now says he was speaking jocularly, although he calls Brunacini a "dear friend." He notes that, as mayor, he isn't technically allowed to interfere with personnel.)

Nor would Brunacini be teaching at the CTC, as he'd planned. And when the former chief asked the city to provide callers with his new contact information, Khan said it was just too complicated.

Some people whispered that Brunacini refused to let Khan take over, that he couldn't let go. That he was in the way, suffocating Khan.

Brunacini insists that wasn't true.

"Anything I would have done, or not done, I would have done at the pleasure of the fire chief," he says. "I would have done any project he wanted to, helped with anything he wanted.

"But since we had that conversation, I haven't set foot on fire department property once."

It soon became clear to the Brunacinis that they were no longer wanted. After the CTC was closed, John Brunacini asked various battalion chiefs if they were willing to take him on as their aide. Most made excuses. He says that only one told him the truth: He'd been blackballed.

"Everyone was scared shitless," John Brunacini recalls. "The last thing they wanted was to be associated with a Brunacini." An old on-the-job neck injury had forced John into surgery the year before; doctors told him he needed light duty. When he couldn't secure a placement as an aide, John had to choose between a data entry job or retiring, he says.

In October, he retired.

When Khan had told Alan Brunacini he had to stay away for a while, Brunacini says they'd talked about six months. Six months later, when Brunacini asked Khan to meet him at Starbucks, Khan told his old boss he couldn't come back.

"Nothing's changed," Khan told the former chief.

Training at the CTC will resume this week. Khan said the CTC was closed for the last seven months because he has "different priorities" from Brunacini: "I saw there were other needs in the system."

Plans to expand the center, which had already been allocated $5.4 million in bond money, have been canceled. Instead, the bond money will build a wing on the fire academy for simulations — something like the CTC, but not a stand-alone project as Brunacini had insisted on.

In February, city workers impounded Nick Brunacini's computer and the computers at the old Command Training Center. Khan referred questions to City Auditor Randy Spenla, who will say only that he's examining "practices" at the CTC.

Brunacini's longtime secretary, Kathi Hilms, couldn't understand why her boss was being driven out, much less why Khan was making so many other changes.

With 28 years in the department, she wasn't about to take it quietly. "Whoever you're listening to, they're selling you a bill of goods," she recalls arguing to Khan.

But her new boss shut her down with one comment. "Pat Cantelme wrote the reorganization plan," says Hilms, quoting Khan. (To New Times, Khan denied this.)

"I respected Pat," Hilms says. "I said, 'Why would Pat wreck the department he built with Bruno?' I didn't understand why he would do that."

Later, Hilms asked Cantelme about it. He confirmed his involvement, although his account differs from Hilms'. She says he took responsibility for the big-picture organizational scheme; he tells New Times that, while he met with Khan and offered him advice, it was strictly about the importance of operations and EMS.

"The architect of that plan was Bob Khan," Cantelme says. "His vision included some changes, and he asked for my input." Cantelme says that he certainly never suggested who should be transferred. "I've been out of the department so long, I don't know the players," he says.

So why was Khan asking Cantelme for advice, even while cutting Brunacini out of the discussions? "Bob Khan met with Alan Brunacini every day for two and a half years," Cantelme says. "There was no Alan Brunacini input he didn't have. It seemed like a fairly standard approach to get input from a variety of people."

Khan says he talked to a number of outsiders, including his father-in-law, who owns a contracting business, and a founding member of the Goldwater Institute, the locally based conservative think tank.

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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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