Feud Causes Rift at Arizona Fire Department

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

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.