Feud Causes Rift at Arizona Fire Department

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


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.