Phoenix Fire Department Chief Alan V. Brunacini likes to boast that getting into his department is as difficult as getting into medical school. The Phoenix Fire Department is, in many ways, an elite organization.
So it was no surprise that of the 1,709 people who showed up at Phoenix Civic Plaza to take the department's most recent written entrance exam, only half qualified for the next step: the arduous agility test--a series of physical trials that must be completed in less than seven minutes and 20 seconds. From there, about 700 prospective firefighters graduated to the oral interviews, the most crucial and most subjective part of the screening process. Of 700 hopefuls, only 175 were invited back for a second interview.
Earlier this summer, the results of the intense competition were announced: 24 recruits--a scant 1.4 percent of the pool--were hired and enrolled in the department's training academy. Sixteen were members of a minority group.
One of the elite two dozen was the fire chief's daughter, Candi Brunacini. She joins her two brothers, John and Robert, and a sister-in-law on the force. The five Brunacinis will earn about $220,000 in gross pay this year.
When the recruits were announced, the Phoenix Fire Department, known for its stratospheric morale, was suddenly home to some grumbling. Not only was this blatant nepotism, the detractors whispered, but Candi Brunacini was not physically fit for the job.
This is the type of problem that Pat Cantelme, powerful president of the firefighters' union, might be expected to address. However, Cantelme is the son of a firefighter himself, and one of the recruits hired this summer was Cantelme's own brother, Thomas, who joins Pat and a third brother, Joseph, on the force.
Besides the Brunacinis and Cantelmes, three other families welcomed new members to the ranks.
But in the face of what is apparently widespread nepotism, none of the powers at the Phoenix Fire Department or its union, the Phoenix Firefighters Association, is ducking for cover or blushing. Quite the contrary.
They point out that Candi Brunacini and Thomas Cantelme--and each of the estimated 200 firefighters who is related to someone else on the force--exceeded the exacting entrance requirements. No strings were pulled, department officials say.
"There are no secret handshakes," Pat Cantelme says. "If there were, it wouldn't have taken my brother six tries to make it."
The Phoenix Fire Department is cited as a model of progressivism and efficiency, a state-of-the-art department leading the way into the next century. Alan Brunacini, chief since 1978, is held in almost mythic esteem by his troops and by his peers nationwide. The firefighter-selection system is beyond reproach, the chief says. The City of Phoenix allows hiring of relatives, as long as one relative does not directly supervise another. It does so because nepotism is better than the alternative, he says. If a candidate were rejected because of a family member on the force, that would be discrimination.
Brunacini's right-hand man, assistant fire chief Dennis Compton--whose brother, Charles, is on the force--says the department's hands are tied.
"If we use nepotism as a reason not to hire people, I can tell you what I would advise those relatives to do," Compton says. "I would advise them to sue the living shit out of the city."
Furthermore, department leaders note, if the efficacy of the 1,275-member department is any measure, more government agencies should investigate the value of nepotism. Chief Brunacini calls it "an asset."
@body:Chief Brunacini is fond of saying there are no secrets at the Phoenix Fire Department. The brouhaha over the new recruit class certainly bears this out.
After New Times made one inquiry, word quickly spread through the fire department. There followed a flurry of calls from complainers who bemoaned a variety of ills inside the department. All the calls had two things in common: The complainants wouldn't give their names for the record, and they all thought the hiring of Candi Brunacini was a mistake.
One caller had just taken the fire department entrance exam for the eighth time. He hadn't made the cut.
"How can other people get on the job if everybody on this department has a relative on the job? They should try and make room for other people. The city should pass laws against this. Some municipalities have laws against the hiring of relatives."
The caller knows the department will insist that the entrance test is unbiased, but he believes that familiarity breeds favoritism--especially during the subjective oral interviews, which are conducted by department employees.
"I can't get on the job, because my last name isn't Brunacini," he says.
One current firefighter agrees, saying, "They can give you assurances, but if I'm on that interview group, there's no way I endanger my career by giving the chief's daughter a low score."
Chief Brunacini says such claims are absurd. The interview panels are drawn from a huge group of department staffers. He has no idea who interviewed his daughter, he says.
The fire chief and other administrators branded the callers--there were a dozen--cowards and chronic whiners who are not representative of the vast majority of the department. They are taking "free shots," department leaders say.
Compton says, "These people don't have the guts to come forward, give their name, state their grievance and process it through the system. There's absolutely no reason why you wouldn't do that through the Phoenix Fire Department system.
"It's the same small group of people who do the calling every time."
@body:Alan Brunacini knows what the problem is, and the problem is not Candi Brunacini or creeping nepotism. The problem is that times are changing, and the old guard can't keep up. In 1980, the force was all male. Now there are 37 women on the force. Representation of minorities far exceeds the ethnicity of the community.
"The white-male view from inside is, we've never hired a capable female," Brunacini says flatly.
The fire department's brain trust says it is looking for a new breed. The firefighter of the 90s must be much more than a hulking specimen capable of scurrying up ladders, busting down doors, pulling hose and rescuing people from burning buildings.
In fact, only 12 percent of the department's 106,000 calls last year involved fires. Nearly 80 percent were for medical emergencies--heart attacks, car wrecks, drownings. Such calls require technical expertise, but they also require patience, tolerance and compassion.
The department's mission is changing, Brunacini notes. Last year, the department instituted the Total Quality Service Process, which basically means that firefighters are expected to consider citizens "customers" and treat them as such.
In essence, the department is looking for social workers who can put out fires.
This new outlook became evident years ago, when the department began revising its agility test. Candidates used to jump over walls, do pull-ups, scale the undersides of ladders--all activities requiring brute, upper-body strength. They are also tasks that women had difficulty completing, and which had little or nothing to do with the work of a firefighter. Today, the obstacle course consists of events specific to firefighting: pulling hose, raising a ladder, turning on a hydrant, wielding an ax and so on.
Old-timers insist the new agility test has gone soft. Compton says the few old-timers who have taken the agility test say it's not only more relevant, it's more difficult.
"It's not easier, it's just different," Compton says.
Another change is that the department has hired an industrial psychologist to help identify and retain caring, service-oriented candidates by revising the entrance and promotional tests. One question on the new oral exam asks, "Tell us how you have displayed being 'open-minded' in your life."
Van Summers, a training officer at the firefighting academy, explains, "We select out [reject] people who are selfish and egotistical. . . . We are looking for people with a lot better people skills. In the past, we looked for a certain stereotype that had to do with people putting out fires. Today, we have to provide the community with other dimensions.
"Something we have got to come to grips with is that our society is not dealing very well with people who are in trouble. A lot of the calls we go on today are not true emergencies, but the people who call us are in some kind of trouble. The fire department is filling this service void."
It's not difficult to see why some old-school firefighters are squirming. Newcomers to the force bring an idealistic zeal that grates on jaded veterans.
"Brunacini is more interested in his friggin' humanitarian awards than getting qualified people in the department," one firefighter complains. Another wonders whether Birkenstock sandals could be far in his future.
Summers shakes his head and laments, "There's a prejudice against women. There's a prejudice against people who care, people who love other people. There are still people on the force who look upon that as a weakness."
@body:Candi Brunacini never expected to become a poster girl for the New Age Firefighter. Thanks to her name, her timing, her circumstances and her nameless detractors, she appears to be just that.
On this day, she is exhausted and exhilarated. She's literally had a trial by fire.
It's 8 a.m., and she has just completed her first 24-hour shift at a Phoenix fire station. She's not yet halfway through her 18-week academy training, but for the next three weeks, she and the other recruits will work alongside veterans, getting a taste of their future workplace.
During her first shift, her crew responded to a one-alarm fire in a two-story building. She says that as the fire truck approached, "I looked out the window and the whole street was full of smoke, and I thought, 'Dear God, this is a real fire!'"
There was a business on the ground floor, a residence on the second. She and her crew went into the burning building, where she was impressed by the cohesion of her crew and the poignancy of children's toys amid all the smoke and water and mayhem.
Afterward, firefighters who have ten years under their belts told her they had never worked a fire in which they had been able to apply such a full complement of their fire training.
Candi Brunacini is a 30-year-old mother of two who divorced a domineering husband and left him on a Colorado sheep ranch. Now she's determined to make it in the family business.
She has crystal-blue eyes, long, wavy hair and the healthy tan of an outdoors lover. She has a warm, confident manner and expresses herself well. Even firefighters who don't believe she's worthy of the force agree that she is a delightful person.
Contrary to descriptions provided by her nameless detractors--one claimed she stood five-foot-two and weighed 200 pounds--Candi Brunacini is not unfit to fight fires. She has the stocky--but not unfeminine--build one would expect from years of ranch work.
When she lived on the ranch, the work agreed with her. "I loved working hard. I liked the physical part of it," she says. Other aspects of her life in Colorado might make the challenges she faces as a firefighter seem trivial. "It was hard to deal with the people. They viewed women as less than nothing," she says. "It was like they were stuck in the third century. They were a long ways from self-actualization."
She left her husband and returned to Phoenix three years ago. She had no job, no college education and two children to support. She was desperate, so she did what came naturally. She enrolled in fire-science courses at Phoenix College and took a job as a civilian employee in the fire department's alarm room. To avoid the appearance of impropriety, she says, she was paid at a lesser rate than her peers.
Like so many other firefighters, she did not get in on her first try. Although she had worked with a professional trainer to prepare for the agility test a year ago, she failed. She got ready for her second attempt by training all year with her brother John, practicing the specific tasks required on the physical test.
This time, she breezed through, finishing with nearly two and a half minutes to spare. She wants everyone who doubts her to know that she scored in the low 80s on the written exam--the cutoff is 68--and a 99 on her oral interviews.
She also wants them to know she was rated second among the 24 recruits who entered the academy--that translates, actually, to second among the 1,709 who sought entry.
Candi Brunacini grew up with the Phoenix Fire Department. She has heard of its tribulations and triumphs around the dinner table and in late-night chats.
"I remember how hard it was for my father, how hard he worked," she says. "You think these changes in the department just happened miraculously, and it's always been this good? When Dad became chief, it was not only the most dangerous profession to be in, it was also one of the worst organizations in the world--poorly managed, poorly run."
She believes those days are long gone.
"Last night at the fire, I was so impressed with these big downtown guys, but at the same time, they were completely professional. It's an amazing balance, and these are amazing people."
@body:The normally professorial and loquacious Alan Brunacini is stiff and brooding as he and Dennis Compton sit down to educate a reporter about department hiring practices. Brunacini is answering questions with questions. Compton is doing most of the talking.
Brunacini, 56, has given 35 years to the Phoenix Fire Department. He's done too much for his city and his profession to endure questions about nepotism, in general, and his own family, in particular. He is disturbed that a few of his loyal troops have involved outsiders in the department's internal affairs.
His pique is understandable. His career is a true success story. Alan Brunacini is to firefighting what Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina is to college basketball: Mr. Team Player, Mr. Respect.
Since he became chief in 1978, Brunacini has created what arguably is the most effective, most problem-free department in the city. He's overseeing a $95 million budget this year. He holds a master's degree in political science. He literally wrote the book on firefighting techniques, Fire Command, and is in great demand as a lecturer.
Labor-management problems are rife in the firefighting world. But thanks to the diligence and genius of Brunacini and union head Pat Cantelme, labor problems at the Phoenix Fire Department are virtually nonexistent. The department is free of ugly negotiations and threats of strikes. When city budgeters threatened to lop two ladder companies from the department in 1992, management and the union convinced the entire department to take unpaid furloughs, saving 26 firefighting jobs. Incredibly, no firefighter grievance has required outside intervention in 14 years. Problems are resolved in-house.
The harmonious relationship with the union solidified a decade ago, when Brunacini and his troops withstood a withering attack launched by then-chief of police Ruben Ortega. The fire department was riddled with drugs, Ortega alleged, and Brunacini had stolen department property. The fire department's image was bruised for a while, but it quickly healed. Brunacini and his department quickly regained their stature. Ortega is gone. Brunacini is still here.
Brunacini has revolutionized firefighting. His department was in the vanguard for requiring breathing apparatus for all firefighters. He fought to get the department into the ambulance business, convinced skeptics--many in his own department--that it was best equipped to serve the needs of the community.
The self-professed "limousine liberal" integrated the department. It would be difficult to find a department in which minorities and women are better represented. Under Brunacini, the department has never been enjoined by a court because of its hiring practices, another rarity.
Often in the face of stern opposition, Brunacini's forced the department to evolve.
Brunacini becomes more animated as he argues that it is this inexorable evolution--not the hiring of his daughter or other firefighters' relatives--that is motivating the naysayers.
But, he says, there is a difference between being compassionate and being soft. While the modern firefighter must be more people-oriented, viewing the public as customers, the firefighter still has a tough job. "Don't take anything that I've said to mean that there's 307 pussycats on duty here," Brunacini says. "Everybody that we hire, we hire them for one reason, and that's to fight. I'll tell you what will drum you out of the academy quicker than somebody making an observation about somebody's fitness, is if you won't attack. We'll lose somebody if they flat-ass won't attack.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Last year, these people destroyed $35,000 worth of doors driving through them before they were up. That's an interesting group of people to manage. We haven't simultaneously figured out how to make people French poodles and English bulldogs. This work force is very aggressive. It's very tough. It has a sick sense of humor. They're basically psychopaths. They beat the living dog shit out of each other, and we live with that."
Brunacini's got a head of steam going. "This isn't a garden club. Don't take all this positive stuff and say, well, these people every morning hold hands and sing 'We Are the Earth.' This is a group of motivated people."
Don't try again to drag his daughter into any of this. He'll talk about the process, but his family, no. "The City of Phoenix does not pay me to be a father," he says.
But two and a half hours into the interview, Brunacini is again asked about those who question his daughter's hiring. He looks the reporter straight in the eye and says: "Everything that I can think that I would like to do with you and to you is a felony."
He thinks for a moment and adds, "You need to understand, they hired me to fight, too.