Feud Causes Rift at Arizona Fire Department

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

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.