The Fire Inside

Bob Khan and Nick Brunacini were high-school pals who became closer than brothers.

They played freshman football at Cortez High School, served as groomsmen at each other's weddings, and even lived together for a while. As young men, both joined the Phoenix Fire Department, where Nick's dad was chief. Both built successful careers and eventually rose to deputy chief.

In their high-school days, Khan was such a frequent guest that the Brunacinis regularly set an extra place at dinner. Later, when Khan and Nick became firefighters, they posed in uniform with Nick's younger brother, John, for a professionally shot "family picture" that for years hung proudly on a wall in the Brunacini home.


Phoenix Fire Department

So when Nick's dad, Alan Brunacini, retired last summer after 28 years as fire chief, many firefighters were happy that Khan was chosen to replace him. Chief Brunacini was greatly loved; by giving the job to his hand-picked successor, the city was keeping the job in the family.

But in the seven months since Khan took over, everything about his relationship with the Brunacinis has changed.

Nick Brunacini doesn't speak to his old friend anymore.

And 69-year-old Alan Brunacini — "Dad" not just to Nick and John, but to many firefighters — is in virtual exile from the department he built.

On Khan's first day on the job, he unveiled a department restructuring. He'd been working on it quietly for months, consulting union officials and private contractors, but never once discussed it with the old man.

No one could blame the new chief for setting up his own administration. But to the Brunacinis, the changes weren't a housecleaning.

They were a demolition.

Alan Brunacini was stunned to see his sons transferred, his best friend demoted, his training program scrapped. Even worse, the new chief told Brunacini that he'd have to stay away from the department he ran. Khan wanted the former chief to move on.

The fallout from that request has caused a deep rift in the once close-knit fire community — a rift that's ostensibly over how to run the department, but one that could never be only about the department.

Sure, Alan Brunacini frets that Khan's changes are wrecking the department that he built. But more than anything, the heart of the problem is that this is family.

Somehow, it's not surprising that Nick Brunacini has compared his former best friend to Fredo Corleone. To the Brunacinis, the new chief didn't just make personnel moves. He betrayed them. For his part, Khan won't even talk about his former best friend. He's clearly uncomfortable talking about his fallout with Alan, too.

Now even Phoenix firefighters who aren't close to Khan or Brunacini are paying attention to the feud. The forum page on a Web site started by Nick Brunacini, www.bshifter.com, has exploded with recriminations and has become a must-read in fire stations across the city.

Everybody's got a theory for what's transpired.

Some suggest that Khan had to remove all traces of his predecessor to make the job his own. Brunacini was one of the nation's most respected fire chiefs; filling his shoes would intimidate anyone. Khan may have been too insecure to deal with his lingering presence.

Others blame union officials, particularly the president of the United Phoenix Fire Association, Billy Shields. They say that by the time Brunacini retired, Shields could barely tolerate his presence — and that Khan's personnel moves have Shields' fingerprints all over them.

But others argue that the plan was the work of Pat Cantelme, Shields' predecessor in the union and now owner of a private ambulance company. In the past, Cantelme had his eye on the lucrative Phoenix ambulance market. Some believe that interest played into the department's restructuring, though Cantelme vehemently denies it.

Even Khan's most vocal accusers don't believe he's in it to make money. But they do suspect him of being used by people who are. Indeed, one fire department retiree who helped plan Khan's restructuring has been awarded a fat consulting contract.

Ultimately, though, this story isn't about money. It's about a band of brothers that's become bitterly divided.

Friends says that Alan Brunacini and his wife, Rita, are shocked by Khan's actions.

"Bobby was just like one of his kids. And that was the most tragic thing to both of them, Alan and Rita both," explains Robert "Hoot" Gibson, one of Alan's best friends, who himself was affected by Khan's personnel changes.

"What Bobby has done to them — it shouldn't be that way. It didn't have to be that way. And it just tore those two up."

At 5'7", Alan Brunacini is a short man. But in national fire service circles — and yes, these circles really do exist — Alan Brunacini is a giant.

He wrote the Bible of fire command training, the aptly named Fire Command, along with four other books. He was Governing magazine's "public official of the year," and was inducted in the hall of fame for Arizona State University's school of public programs. Chairman of the National Fire Protection Association for five years, he still chairs its committee that sets national standards for deployment.

As a speaker, Brunacini has long been much in demand. His "conversation" at the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference, hosted by Fire Engineering Magazine, consistently sells out. Even after the air conditioning died one year, the magazine's editor, Bobby Halton, reports that people lined the aisles.

In Phoenix, though, Alan Brunacini was just Bruno. He didn't need to see his name in the papers. Didn't care about going to City Council meetings, or, really, about schmoozing at all — neither giving schmooze nor receiving it.

He's so uninterested in celebrity that he once sat next to Jay Leno on a plane and had to ask why other passengers were requesting Leno's autograph. Curious in turn about the fire manual Brunacini was reading, Leno asked whether Bruno worked for the fire department.

Brunacini's reply was characteristically low-key. He never mentioned he was the chief. He simply said, "I do."

"He's a brilliant man," says Kathi Hilms, Brunacini's longtime secretary. (She retired from the city in January.) "But he's just not knowledgeable about some things. Stars, sports figures — he had no interest."

Born in Jamestown, New York, and raised in New Mexico, Bruno joined the Phoenix department in 1958 and advanced through its ranks, becoming chief in 1978. He stayed another 28 years.

He's uninterested in luxury. He wears Hawaiian shirts just about everywhere, and he and his wife have lived in the same modest ranch house in northwest Phoenix since 1958. (Both sons and their wives settled within blocks of the family homestead.) He's spent the last 25 years puttering around his garage with his dearest friend, Hoot Gibson, restoring an old fire engine.

Brunacini had the same secretary all 28 years. His executive assistant chief, Bob Cantwell, recalls that during one ten-year run, his top staff suffered not a single personnel change.

Throughout his career, Brunacini hammered the same points, focusing on the paramount importance of customer service. Every firefighter, from Cantwell to the lowliest trainee, can talk about "Mrs. Smith," the prototypical Phoenix resident that Brunacini called on them to serve.

But Bruno also loved the technical stuff. After Phoenix firefighter Bret Tarver died in a huge blaze in 2001, Brunacini assembled a training base, the Command Training Center, in an abandoned station on 27th Avenue. The goal was to train mid-level managers to manage the big crises that come so infrequently in cities like Phoenix, but can be catastrophic when they do. The CTC used multiple video screens to simulate fires, and commanders got experience making important judgment calls.

The place drew visitors from as far as Taiwan. Departments from Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, to Henderson, Nevada, built centers of their own based on Brunacini's model.

He had his critics. He clashed with former assistant city manager Sheryl Sculley. She wanted control; he chafed under her attempts to get it.

And while Brunacini worked well with Pat Cantelme, who presided over the firefighters union for 20 years, he didn't dance quite so well with Cantelme's hand-picked successor, Billy Shields. Cantelme is all about the endgame; Shields is more mercurial. His feelings get hurt. And Bruno could be sarcastic.

For years, too, there were rumors of nepotism. Fire departments like Phoenix are full of familiar names and old high-school cliques; it seems that everyone who joins has an uncle or dad already in the business. All three Brunacini kids joined the Phoenix Fire Department, even daughter Candi — and Candi's gender, if nothing else, gave the old-school guys something to gripe about. It didn't help that Nick Brunacini rose to deputy chief.

But people who took the time to investigate the situation concluded that it was nothing nefarious: Nick Brunacini is good at his work. Candi Brunacini, too, is a capable firefighter (See "Like Father, Like Daughter," by Jeremy Voas, August 25, 1993).

Under Brunacini, Phoenix earned a national reputation. It's so frequently praised, it's difficult to remember how lowly the city's fire department was, pre-Brunacini.

The old-timers haven't forgotten.

Tom Healy, chief of the Daisy Mountain Fire District that borders Phoenix's west side, came to work for Phoenix in 1970 after a run in California.

"We had shoddy equipment and not much training," Healy recalls. "I'd go visit my friends in California and they had nice shiny stuff. I'd think, 'Doggone it, it's embarrassing to say what department I'm from.' But it wasn't too long after Alan Brunacini became fire chief that you were proud to say you were from Phoenix."

In 2001, Alan Brunacini announced that he would retire in the summer of 2006.

Under the state's optional plan for safety workers, longtime firefighters who name their retirement date years in advance can add richly to their pension. The idea, says Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks, is to give experienced workers a reason to stay on the job. Setting the date in advance also helps the city plan for openings.

But when his personal D-Day grew closer, Brunacini began to have second thoughts. In the fall of 2005, he wrote Fairbanks to say he'd changed his mind. He wanted to stay.

By opting out of the program, Brunacini says, he'd lose $185,000 in retirement benefits.

But Bruno didn't care about the money. He just wanted to stay on as chief.

Fairbanks said no. In a November 2005 letter to Brunacini, Fairbanks wrote that the law department had concluded that Brunacini's chosen retirement date was "irrevocable."

As it turns out, the city could have gotten around the rules. Police Chief Jack Harris retired just after Brunacini, under the same system. But before Harris was out the door, the city announced that he'd be returning as an assistant city manager. Since it's a new job, Harris won't lose a cent of his pension.

Fairbanks says that the city's willingness to rehire the 57-year-old Harris was no slam on Brunacini. "Frankly, we didn't think of this in Bruno's case," he says.

So on July 31, 2006, Brunacini retired.

There was all the expected hoopla. Pat Cantelme, the former union president, gave Bruno an antique fire hydrant from Scotland. Chiefs from around the country praised him. Mayor Phil Gordon named Brunacini "fire chief emeritus," making it clear that he'd be there to lend a hand to his old department.

The city manager, after all, had chosen Bob Khan — the man Brunacini had supported as his successor. This was the boy, now 48, who'd been best pals with Bruno's son Nick. This was the sixth plate at the Brunacini table for so many dinners.

As Bruno himself joked at his retirement party, when Khan first showed up at dinner, the chief asked his wife if he'd forgotten that he had an extra kid. Khan, he said, "looked like one of ours."

Over the years, Bruno told the hundreds in attendance, Khan had become like one of theirs, like family.

That was July 31. Then came August.

For more than a decade before he became fire chief, Bob Khan was the public face of the Phoenix Fire Department. That's because Alan Brunacini wasn't interested in working the media — and because Khan was genuinely good at it.

A solid fireplug of a man, Khan has stunning blue eyes and two adorable young daughters he and his wife adopted from China. He comes across as the kind of guy that people wish their sisters would marry: dependable, nice, sincere.

Thanks to his work on TV, Khan has higher name recognition than his former boss — higher, too, than elected officials in town. That would have given Sheriff Joe Arpaio heart palpitations; Brunacini didn't care.

So when a nationwide search for Bruno's replacement ended with Khan winning the job, few people in the fire department imagined that much difficulty lay ahead.

"I was Bob Khan's biggest fan," Brunacini says. "There were only three people closer to me than he was, and that's my three kids. Really, he was one of my kids . . . I was extremely optimistic about Khan becoming fire chief, because I thought we'd have continuity with the way we'd done things for 25 years."

In the three months after Khan was chosen as chief and before Bruno was set to retire, Brunacini says that the two men continued to work nearly side by side. And Brunacini thought they were on the same page.

But on his first day as chief, Khan unveiled a major reorganization.

As Nick Brunacini would later write in a column for Fire Rescue Magazine, when he first heard Khan describe a series of organizational changes, effective immediately, "I thought he was pulling my chain."

Khan wasn't.

On Nick Brunacini's Web site, they call it "Black Tuesday." (Nick, who still works for the fire department, has declined comment for this story.)

A shift commander without much experience in operations was suddenly running that department. The operations guy, meanwhile, was transferred to personnel. The man who shift commanders used to report to became deputy fire marshal. Chains of command across the board were shuffled.

The moves immediately affected the Brunacini family. John Brunacini, who'd been injured on the job years ago, had been assigned to teach classes at the department's Command Training Center (CTC).

Those classes were canceled indefinitely — a blow not just to John but to his father. Though the union griped about the CTC, complaining it was a waste of time, it was Alan Brunacini's baby.

And the CTC didn't just serve Phoenix. All departments in the Valley participated. Several chiefs say they were surprised to hear that training had been canceled.

"The CTC was a very valuable tool for us," says Glendale Fire Chief Mark Burdick, who stresses that he's friends with both Khan and Brunacini. "Did it come to a surprise to us when it was shut down? Yes. I don't think people anticipated that."

Nick Brunacini, who had also been assigned to the CTC, was transferred downtown — a lateral move, but one with far less interesting work.

Brunacini's best friend, Hoot Gibson, the department's fleet manager, was moved, too.

Complaints from an underling had resulted in Gibson resigning under fire in 1996. (See "Fire Truculence," by Patti Epler, November 13, 1997.) But he'd returned to the department in 2002 and been rated "excellent" by his supervisors, records show.

On Khan's first day, Gibson found himself unceremoniously transferred to a station in Laveen. He was installed in an office without a computer — or a fully functional phone.

He was given one task in six months: to write a report that took all of four hours.

"That was a long six months," Gibson says now. "That is just not in my makeup. I wanted to be productive."

In January, Gibson retired.

"If they had come to me and said, 'Hoot, you don't fit the plan,' I would have said, 'Bobby, I'll do what you want me to,'" Gibson says. "You would have thought they would have told me, 'We need a guy to take your place. We need you to tutor him.' You'd think they'd pick a guy's brain — I'd only done the job since 1975!"

It wasn't only Gibson's brain that went unpicked. Brunacini's did, too.

During the first week of his retirement, the former chief had breakfast with Chief Khan. There he learned that it wasn't just about Hoot, or his sons.

"You have to go away, and stay away for a while," Khan said.

Mayor Phil Gordon had told Phoenix magazine that Brunacini would get an office in the fire department. But that, clearly, wasn't happening. (Gordon now says he was speaking jocularly, although he calls Brunacini a "dear friend." He notes that, as mayor, he isn't technically allowed to interfere with personnel.)

Nor would Brunacini be teaching at the CTC, as he'd planned. And when the former chief asked the city to provide callers with his new contact information, Khan said it was just too complicated.

Some people whispered that Brunacini refused to let Khan take over, that he couldn't let go. That he was in the way, suffocating Khan.

Brunacini insists that wasn't true.

"Anything I would have done, or not done, I would have done at the pleasure of the fire chief," he says. "I would have done any project he wanted to, helped with anything he wanted.

"But since we had that conversation, I haven't set foot on fire department property once."

It soon became clear to the Brunacinis that they were no longer wanted. After the CTC was closed, John Brunacini asked various battalion chiefs if they were willing to take him on as their aide. Most made excuses. He says that only one told him the truth: He'd been blackballed.

"Everyone was scared shitless," John Brunacini recalls. "The last thing they wanted was to be associated with a Brunacini." An old on-the-job neck injury had forced John into surgery the year before; doctors told him he needed light duty. When he couldn't secure a placement as an aide, John had to choose between a data entry job or retiring, he says.

In October, he retired.

When Khan had told Alan Brunacini he had to stay away for a while, Brunacini says they'd talked about six months. Six months later, when Brunacini asked Khan to meet him at Starbucks, Khan told his old boss he couldn't come back.

"Nothing's changed," Khan told the former chief.

Training at the CTC will resume this week. Khan said the CTC was closed for the last seven months because he has "different priorities" from Brunacini: "I saw there were other needs in the system."

Plans to expand the center, which had already been allocated $5.4 million in bond money, have been canceled. Instead, the bond money will build a wing on the fire academy for simulations — something like the CTC, but not a stand-alone project as Brunacini had insisted on.

In February, city workers impounded Nick Brunacini's computer and the computers at the old Command Training Center. Khan referred questions to City Auditor Randy Spenla, who will say only that he's examining "practices" at the CTC.

Brunacini's longtime secretary, Kathi Hilms, couldn't understand why her boss was being driven out, much less why Khan was making so many other changes.

With 28 years in the department, she wasn't about to take it quietly. "Whoever you're listening to, they're selling you a bill of goods," she recalls arguing to Khan.

But her new boss shut her down with one comment. "Pat Cantelme wrote the reorganization plan," says Hilms, quoting Khan. (To New Times, Khan denied this.)

"I respected Pat," Hilms says. "I said, 'Why would Pat wreck the department he built with Bruno?' I didn't understand why he would do that."

Later, Hilms asked Cantelme about it. He confirmed his involvement, although his account differs from Hilms'. She says he took responsibility for the big-picture organizational scheme; he tells New Times that, while he met with Khan and offered him advice, it was strictly about the importance of operations and EMS.

"The architect of that plan was Bob Khan," Cantelme says. "His vision included some changes, and he asked for my input." Cantelme says that he certainly never suggested who should be transferred. "I've been out of the department so long, I don't know the players," he says.

So why was Khan asking Cantelme for advice, even while cutting Brunacini out of the discussions? "Bob Khan met with Alan Brunacini every day for two and a half years," Cantelme says. "There was no Alan Brunacini input he didn't have. It seemed like a fairly standard approach to get input from a variety of people."

Khan says he talked to a number of outsiders, including his father-in-law, who owns a contracting business, and a founding member of the Goldwater Institute, the locally based conservative think tank.

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.

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.

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."

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 www.bshifter.com, 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.

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.)

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."

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >