Ambulance Chasers

He's not your stereotypical firefighter: beefy, deliciously cocky, over-the-top charismatic.

Instead, Pat Cantelme is a small man with a soft voice and a certain reserve. In his polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, he looks like a guy who'd do your taxes, not lead a firefighters union.

But that's what he did, and he did it so successfully that his name is still legend in the Phoenix Fire Department, nearly seven years after his retirement.

At 18, Cantelme was the youngest firefighter the city ever hired. He made captain at 25 -- again, the youngest ever. He was elected president of the firefighters union in 1978 and kept the job for 20 years.

It's hard to find anyone in the Valley's union brass who doesn't consider him a personal friend. More than that, everyone agrees that he's responsible for winning local firefighters the clout they currently enjoy.

Now Cantelme's banking on his legend status, hoping it will help him crack a virtual monopoly that's worth millions of dollars.

He wants to make a name in business the way he once made it in union politics.

He wants to take your 911 call.

More specifically, Cantelme's new business, Professional Medical Transport, wants to supply the ambulances and paramedics that respond to emergency calls.

In some ways, it's a natural fit. Cantelme learned the ambulance business during his years as a Phoenix firefighter, when he helped the city set up its own ambulance service. Why not take what he learned in the public sector and help a privately run ambulance company work better?

"This is something I know how to do," he says, and there is no braggadocio in his voice.

But there is one small problem.

The company that currently has a lock on the market is a union company. Its emergency workers, in fact, organized under the International Association of Fire Fighters -- with the help of Pat Cantelme.

And now, Cantelme's company, which isn't unionized, wants to take their jobs.

Understandably, Cantelme's plan is creating no small amount of tension within local fire unions. On one hand, there's the guy who made them what they are.

On the other: their own union brothers.

The fight has become vicious. It's turned brother against brother, local union against local union. There have been allegations of corruption, anonymous e-mails, grand conspiracy theories.

And, shocking everyone -- including, apparently, Pat Cantelme -- a set of long-hidden financial transactions has come to light, transactions that raise serious questions about Cantelme's actions during his union heyday.

As it turns out, even while he was working as union president and a full-time Phoenix firefighter, Cantelme was making money on the side. A lot of money.

He was being paid by a company whose employees he'd helped to organize under the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Despite little evidence that he actually showed up to work, Cantelme made $40,000 a year for three years. When the company sold, he got a check for $2.3 million.

He was supposed to be helping his union brothers. He even chaired the IAFF's anti-privatization committee.

But at the same time, he was working for a private ambulance company and launching a business venture with its owner, Bob Ramsey, a guy reviled by the union rank and file.

The union working for that company knew nothing about it. And though the union members were never happy with the deals they were getting, they were assured by none other than Pat Cantelme that everything was all right.

It's no wonder that the news of Cantelme's financial dealings has rocked his former union brethren -- or that they're now trying to use it against him as he enters the ambulance market.

No one's accusing Cantelme of breaking the law. No one is calling for a criminal investigation.

But they are asking questions.

Cantelme's union brothers never would have thought it possible that he would betray his union ideals for a buck. But now they wonder: Did he do it for $2.3 million?

The way it used to work, if you called 911 in the Valley, your fate depended on the luck of the draw. A host of private ambulance companies took the calls on a rotation system -- which meant proximity didn't matter, skill didn't matter, customer service didn't matter.

The only thing that mattered was which company was next in the line.

With life and death in the balance, such a disorganized system was bound to cause problems. Ambulance companies fought over jobs in areas where patients were likely to pay their bills -- but not everyone was so lucky. Some ambulances even carried credit-card machines to make sure patients were good for the money before giving them a ride to the hospital.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske