Feud Causes Rift at Arizona Fire Department

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

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!"