The Fire Inside

The family feud at the Phoenix Fire Department

But Nick Brunacini hasn't been quite so careful. For two years, he was a columnist for Fire Rescue Magazine, a national trade publication. His column, "Staring Into the Sun," was an uninhibited take on fire department life — and sometimes proved a little too uninhibited. He came under fire last year for referring to a fire department client as "mongoloid" in appearance.

After Khan put his changes into place, Brunacini filed a column about what had happened to his family. He later wrote a second piece about Khan.

The magazine never published either column. But at some point, they landed in the hands of some fire department employees. From there, they quickly circulated. (Both were given to New Times by someone outside the Brunacini family.)

Mark Gartland
Alan Brunacini
Laura Segall
Alan Brunacini

In one column, Nick Brunacini details his hurt — and his anger at Khan.

"The people currently responsible for running the PFD have spent the last period of time making sure that Alan Brunacini stays a former member of the city of Phoenix Fire Department," he wrote. "I couldn't give you all the reasons why, but I feel like it probably has as much to do with same motivations that cause tigers to eat their cubs."

The second column closes with a speech from a "mutual friend" of Khan and Nick Brunacini.

The friend says, according to Nick's column, "Anyone who had lunch with your dad in the last 30 days got sent to the four winds . . . [T]he thing that has troubled me is that you were Bob's best friend. Even more frightening is what Bob has done to your old man . . .

"If he treats the people he claims to love that way, what will he do to the rest of us? This is some real fucked up Fredo Corleone shit."

Before her retirement, Brunacini's old secretary, Kathi Hilms, talked to Chief Khan. She says he confessed that if he had known that taking the chief's job would have so altered his relationship with the Brunacinis, he would never have accepted the position.

Alan Brunacini has heard that story. But to him, it only makes things worse.

"If he feels that way," he says, "why didn't he do something when he could? It's too late now. Why didn't you save my life when it was savable? Why wait until after I drowned?"

In an interview with New Times at his office in February, Khan was happy to discuss what he's done so far, as chief. He dismissed talk that he'd been forced to do anything: "Nobody held a gun to my head to do any of this."

But he's noticeably less voluble when the subject of Brunacini comes up. He says, finally, that he's not happy that Brunacini is upset.

"He's a father figure to me," Khan says. "To have a disagreement with someone like that is hard, sure."

But when it comes to his old best friend, Nick, Khan doesn't want to say anything.

"I'm a fire chief," he says. "I have no response."

There's an uncomfortable pause. Khan shifts in his chair.

"I'm the fire chief," he says. "I'm going to run the fire department."

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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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