The Fire Inside

The family feud at the Phoenix Fire Department

Khan says he had three chief advisers: two officials in the United Phoenix Firefighters Union (Billy Shields and Brian Tobin) and Dennis Compton, a former Phoenix firefighter and the retired Mesa fire chief. (Compton now runs a one-man consulting business.)

The men kept the meetings close to the vest — so close that Brunacini, who worked in the same office group, was unaware of them. Khan says he was being protective. "If you do things like this in advance, people shop around agendas," he says.

But since Khan established his reign, some members of the core group have benefited.

Mark Gartland
Alan Brunacini
Laura Segall
Alan Brunacini

Compton has gotten a fat consulting contract.

He'll make $138,000 this year, in a series of $23,000 payments. A public records request for any memos or reports that Compton has written on the job yielded no documents. (The city renewed Compton's initial six-month contract in January without a written evaluation or assessment.)

Oddly, Compton was hired without a request for proposals or any attempt to see whether anyone else was interested in the job. That's unusual. But it is legal, says City Finance Director Bob Wingenroth, if there's a "compelling business reason" to hire a particular person, and if the city manager gives his approval.

City Manager Fairbanks says he doesn't know about the contract, referring questions to the assistant city manager who directly supervises the fire department, Alton Washington. Washington refused to talk to New Times, citing the fact that the newspaper had already talked to his boss and the mayor. (Fairbanks promised to intervene, but Washington never did call back.)

Soon after Compton was hired, the city did advertise a consulting job, one for a new finance advisor. Compton's former top aide in Mesa, Dorinda Cline, was the only applicant.

She's since been hired on a 12-month contract worth $80,000.

As for union officials, John Brunacini says that Billy Shields' antipathy toward his father was an open secret.

"Maybe every time somebody pissed Billy off, he put a rock in his bag," John Brunacini says. "And when he got the chance, he unloaded it at us."

Shields did not return calls for comment. (His predecessor, Cantelme, says that while he and Brunacini had a great relationship, "you can't always pass that along to the next generation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.")

The Command Training Center was a symbol of all that the union hated, John Brunacini says.

It wasn't particularly expensive. The cost, mostly overtime for instructors, averaged about $100,000 annually, according to department records. Although rumors have been rife that the Brunacinis got rich teaching classes there, records show that the work was spread among more than two dozen department staffers. As a deputy chief, Nick Brunacini wasn't even eligible for overtime; meanwhile, John Brunacini says he made only about $10,000 in overtime in his last year on the job.

But the union didn't like it. Brunacini had established the CTC without going through the union process, which angered union officials. Also, the department developed new command techniques through the CTC's simulations. Since that happened outside the union structure, union officials didn't like that, either.

Shutting down the CTC didn't only get back at Brunacini, says John Brunacini. It also halted a development process that was increasingly out of the union's control.

So Compton got a consulting job. Shields got payback, and big changes.

What Pat Cantelme got out of the process isn't yet clear. But that hasn't stopped firefighters from talking about it.

When Pat Cantelme retired from the fire department 10 years ago, he got involved in a host of business ventures: political consulting, marketing, and even a fire service Web site.

Cantelme also became a partner in a private ambulance business, PMT, which vies for suburban 911 contracts in the Valley.

That was controversial, since the company that currently had the 911 contracts, Southwest Ambulance, is organized under Cantelme's old union, the International Association of Firefighters. (Cantelme, in fact, did the organizing.) If Cantelme's company is successful, his old union brothers could lose their jobs.

But, as it turns out, Cantelme wasn't interested solely in suburban contracts. Records show that, in 2003, he seriously discussed making a play for private ambulance service in the city of Phoenix, something he recently confirmed to New Times. (See "Backdraft.")

Ambulance work is currently handled by Phoenix firefighters. But Cantelme argued that the firefighters, while fiercely protective of 911 work, would be more than happy to give up handling "behavioral health" calls — the sort of nausea/heartburn trivialities that bore firefighters to tears — and let a private company do the work.

Cantelme's plans to win that work fell through almost four years ago. But since taking over as chief, Khan has made one thing a priority: exploring alternate ways of handling those calls.

In newspaper columns he's written, and in an interview with New Times, he notes that the number of calls puts a huge stress on the systems. Sending a fire engine to treat someone with nausea may not be the smartest way to do business.

A committee inside the department is considering options; Khan says he expects a report by July. Preliminary committee documents, obtained by New Times through a public records request, briefly mention the possibility of "utilizing other agencies" to take behavioral health calls.

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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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