Crews scrambled for hours to contain the blazes, which they believe were set by an arsonist. Dispatchers worked hard to keep up.
It was another night in the Detroit Fire Department, where a mini-Devil’s Night can break out without warning and anxiety is high over the immediate future.
Fire fighters, like all Detroit city employees, face as-yet unknown changes in the coming days. The new budget that takes effect July 1 means significant cutbacks, possible layoffs and considerable uncertainty.
Life already is different. Municipal employees now work for not only a mayor and city council, but, under the consent agreement city leaders crafted with the state, a Financial Advisory Board, a chief financial officer and a project manager are also involved in running the city. It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption that has the noble goal of making Detroit fiscally sound.
Along with solvency, the consent agreement seeks to turn on the streetlights and get more cops on the streets and create a city that works for residents again. Those might be long-term goals. But the immediate result will be a city government that is even less able to meet the needs of its citizens than it is today, if that’s possible.
Take the fire department.
Dan McNamara, who has served as president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association since 2002, has looked into the future of the fire department and he is worried.
In a word, McNamara sees “disaster.”
We have to remember that McNamara, like all union bosses, is an advocate for his members. But his rhetoric in the past has been subdued; he often has said the city “rolls the dice” with lives and property when it cuts the fire department, and that has proven to be true on the few nights a year when the fire load in the city becomes too much too handle, and dispatchers and fire fighters join in a mad scramble to keep things under control.
And consider the facts.
The fire department’s budget is being cut by $23.5 million, to $160 million, and about $11 million of that $160 million is based on a grant that the department has not yet secured.
The cut in funding will mean taking more rigs out of service and possible layoffs. That means, logically, longer response times and more work for the fire fighters who remain.
The DFD already is widely considered the busiest of any big city department, though statistical comparisons are hard to come by. The department today fights slightly more fires a year, on average, than it did in the early 1950s, when the city peaked in population and businesses. But after decades of cutbacks as the city’s tax revenue disappeared, it operates in 2012 with about half the number of vehicles and personnel it had in 1954.
McNamara has a list of 15 rigs that he says likely will be de-activated in a little more than a week. He also says deep cuts are planned for arson investigation and in the personnel that performs building inspections. Imagine dealing with Monday morning’s outbreak of fires with 15 fewer rigs in service.
The couple dozen fire fighters it takes to operate a fire rig 24/7 make up a company.
“If these companies are closed a disaster is going to happen,” he said. “Can you imagine when word gets out that arsons aren’t being inspected? What do you think is going to happen in Detroit?”
Fire Commissioner Donald Austin agreed to be interviewed, but said he would have to postpone meeting with Deadline Detroit until Mayor Dave Bing makes an announcement, if any, of the post-July 1 public safety situation.
At his appearance at city council this spring for a hearing on the DFD budget, Austin said the department today has an average response time of seven minutes and “good coverage” in the way rigs are stationed around the city.
He was not specific about company closings, but said the department would do its best to keep at least one rig in each of the city’s 46 stations, most of which house two or even three fire vehicles. He said the department would change its fire-fighting tactics, perhaps lessening the number of vehicles and personnel its sends to a reported fire, saying more units can be summoned as needed.
Austin told council members a possible 50-percent cut in arson investigations would be handled by doing “triage” – going after the most important fire-related crimes.
As for EMS, whose severe malfunctioning has been documented by virtually every media outlet in Detroit, Austin was blunt: There are no new trucks coming, and the department “has a lot of work to do” to improve its response time.
One of his fixes for EMS is to cross-train fire fighters as paramedics and to have them respond to such critical emergencies as cardiac arrests, as fire fighters do in many other cities.
Getting that to happen in Detroit would require changing the collective bargaining agreement. In general, McNamara said the union is open to change, and has already given in so much to keep the city afloat that some of his members accused the leadership of selling out.
City Council President Charles Pugh told Austin he supported him in making fire fighters respond to EMS calls, especially after his brother, a Detroit police sergeant, died of a heart attack on duty in February. EMS took “so long” to get here, Pugh said, and he noted, acidly, his brother’s precinct was just down the street from a fire station, whose inhabitants could not be called.
Austin underlined the uncertain future of local fire fighting by saying officials already are exploring the possibility of forming a fire authority that could include Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck and even Harper Woods, whose department has been decimated by cutbacks. Austin said he could station Detroit’s Engine 58 in nearby Harper Woods, and it still could respond to fires in its territory on the far East Side.
“When we are all challenged we have to do what we can to help each other,” Austin said.
Said McNamara: “What’s the solution? Where is this going to go? Nobody knows. Right now this place is a rudderless ship. And there’s no cavalry at 8 Mile waiting to ride in.
“The shape and face of fire fighting in metro Detroit is changing. It’s being driven by one thing – the financial disaster we call Michigan.”