Feud Causes Rift at Arizona Fire Department

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

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."