The Fire Inside

The family feud at the Phoenix Fire Department

Khan's interest in finding new ways to service the same calls that Cantelme once proposed handling has caused concern to some firefighters.

At committee meetings, according to minutes, members have been vocal about not wanting to see the service handled by a private company.

Khan insists that he does not support using a private ambulance company. "In no way, shape, or form am I talking about outsourcing our services," he says. "I really don't care for that arena."

Mark Gartland
Alan Brunacini
Laura Segall
Alan Brunacini

Instead, he praises a plan in Tucson, which puts firefighters in pickup trucks to handle low-level calls.

But if nothing else, the old union president has his foot in the door.

This summer, the fire department decided to set up an in-house billing department rather than use an outside contractor. They then purchased a $210,000 billing system from Cantelme's business partner, Bob Ramsey, without soliciting other bids or openly advertising. (Again, assistant city manager Alton Washington, who signed off on the deal, refused to talk to New Times.)

Around the same time, Phoenix Fire announced a plan to provide fire service to Paradise Valley, bumping privately owned Rural Metro. Khan engineered the deal — mostly, he says, to provide better coverage for northeast Phoenix.

Sure, Phoenix is basically donating an engine to the wealthy suburb. But the city has long needed better coverage near the Paradise Valley border. Taking over a preexisting suburban station will eliminate a need for new construction, Khan says.

But firefighters can't help noticing that, even as Phoenix volunteered its fire services, Khan initially chose to leave Paradise Valley to a private ambulance provider.

"There's a lot of guys on the job who feel that Phoenix is being set up to let PMT come in," says one 10-year fire veteran, who asked not to be identified because he works for the Phoenix department. "For the first time ever, you're going to have private ambulances sitting next to a Phoenix fire truck."

After firefighters began griping online about the private ambulance situation, Paradise Valley asked Phoenix whether it wanted to make a bid to handle the work municipally. Khan, who says the initial private ambulance plan was based on a misunderstanding, says he's interested.

But the rumors about Cantelme's interest in Phoenix ambulance work have gotten so pervasive that Cantelme has taken to defending himself in forums at, Nick Brunacini's Web site.

"The craziness about PMT ambulance trying to take over Phoenix Fire's emergency ambulance business comes from someone's wet dream, nightmare, or personal vendetta," Cantelme wrote last month.

"PMT would have as much chance of taking over Phoenix Fire's ambulance business as Alan Brunacini or Pat Cantelme would have dunking a basketball."

It's fair to say that Phoenix will never again have a chief like Alan Brunacini. Not one who serves so long, and not one who has such autonomy.

And that's no insult to Bob Khan.

Twenty-nine years ago, when Brunacini took the job, most fire chiefs were protected by civil service rules. They didn't serve at the mercy of elected officials. They couldn't be fired unless a city proved they had screwed up.

But that protection is gone, now, in most cities around the country. And it was phased out in Phoenix with Bruno's retirement. Khan is serving, literally, at the will of City Manager Frank Fairbanks. If Fairbanks decides that it's time for new blood, Khan will be out of a job.

That makes for a stickier situation in Phoenix than in other places, simply because the firefighters union here is so powerful. They have been closely allied with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon for years; they've also been able to make or break the candidacies of more than one council wanna-be.

So Khan has to listen to City Hall. And because of that, he'll also be listening to the union.

"I know Bobby was under some pressure that he establish a new administration, from a variety of sources," says Glendale Fire Chief Burdick. "He's the new fire chief, and he had to deal with expectations from elected officials, from labor, and from the community. He needed to roll out something new and different."

Fire chiefs in the Valley, from Burdick to Scottsdale's Willie McDonald, say they believe Khan is doing a great job of balancing the job's demands — and making his own mark. "Chief Brunacini said at his retirement dinner that he was handing the department to his successor to bring it to the next level," McDonald says. "I think that's happened."

And while officials at City Hall are well aware of the fallout at the fire department, none of them seems too concerned about it.

"I think it's not surprising, and almost normal, that there would be some change, and that change would come hard," says City Manager Fairbanks. "Bruno was clearly one of the best fire chiefs in America — but it's normal that a new chief would make changes to reflect his view of how the department should run."

Alan Brunacini went quietly. Until New Times called him for this story, he'd never discussed the transition with anyone other than family and people he knew from the fire service. And although he admits to being hurt, he obviously tries to choose his words carefully.

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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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