As fires rage across Detroit, people are dying because of severe budget cuts

By Constance York – for Motor City Muckraker

It seemed like they were attending a funeral. As Detroit’s Engine 10 closed for good on Aug. 10, a steady stream of firefighters came by to say their good-byes.

They removed pictures off the walls honoring the history, honoring the fallen. They hugged. They shook their heads in disbelief.

They divvied up 10’s belongings. Some to take home, some to other engine houses. They took everything of value, even if that value was simply sentimental, so that it all wouldn’t be lost. (Firefighters themselves supply the firehouse with most everything they need, from groceries to televisions.)

When Engine 49 was closed earlier in the summer, scrappers broke in and stripped the building of copper plumbing, wiring and the cast-iron registers. Other closed firehouses have been set on fire.

Engine 10 wasn’t closed because they were slow, or not needed. They, and 14 other companies, were closed by the city to help balance the budget. Aside from them, other companies are browned-out (closed) on a daily basis and many rigs are only riding with three firefighters.

They also laid off 108 firefighters temporarily, in order to qualify for a SAFER grant, which is designed to save fire-fighting positions given by the federal government, and 27 permanently. Around 150 have been demoted and returned to wherever they were stationed a year ago.

Every member took a 10% pay cut, but if you were demoted from sergeant to firefighter, the cut was more like 23%.

Since Detroit promotes through seniority, firefighters with more than twenty years on the job, are still waiting to be sergeants.

And guys with ten years on, are getting laid off.

Morale is at an all-time low, and firefighters have rallied with police at city hall, and even crashed a community meeting in order to confront the fire commissioner in an effort to be heard.

Firefighters are angry, frustrated and feel betrayed by a city they’ve been – and still are – devoted to.

After all, they have to be. They can’t strike. They can’t let their low morale dictate how fast they arrive on the scene, or how fast they save a life.

They have to continue their job in continually worsening conditions, with degraded equipment and fewer men while traveling farther distances.

The community meeting was meant as a chance for Fire Commissioner Don Austin to answer questions from residents, but a large group of firefighters in red T-shirts, met at the nearest engine house and walked to the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church to ask their own questions.

They took their seats among the dozen or so residents and eagerly waited to question the commissioner.

After addressing the crowd for awhile, he eventually took a few questions.

“How can you justify having only eight arson investigators in a city that easily gets eight arsons a night?” one person asked.

The commissioner’s responded candidly, “I can’t justify it… It is what it is.”

Another person asked, “What is the absolute minimum number of fire companies needed to maintain basic citizen safety on a daily basis? Have you come up with that number?”

The commissioner responded, “No I haven’t.”

He did speak of new computers and software and added two deputy commissioners, and an “IT/numbers cruncher” to his staff since arriving, all making well over $100,000 a year.

According to Union President Dan McNamara, the addition of the commissioner’s staff cost the budget 15 firefighters.

What the city doesn’t have, and desperately needs, is a plan to improve city services so that people will want to live in Detroit.

If your problem is not having enough taxpayers, how do you turn that around? Cutting public safety isn’t the answer in Detroit.

“If you want people to move to the city, you have to have public safety,” said McNamara. “People are going to vote with their feet.”

In fact a new poll released by the Detroit News reports that 40% of Detroiters plan to move within the next five years due to fear of crime.

Many residents are afraid to sleep at night, afraid the vacant house next door will be set on fire and catch theirs. So, they sleep in shifts, in order to protect their home in what has become a tinderbox of anarchy.

“We’re afraid that we’ve become a free burn zone,” said McNamara.

Indeed, if there was any city in the United States that needs every one of their firefighters, it’s Detroit. If there’s a city where every single police officer is vital – it’s Detroit.

Yet, the city cut police and fire. Right now, if a citizen calls about a robbery, chances are good they’ll have to leave a message. If you call for an arson car after midnight, you probably won’t get one. If you call for EMS, you could wait thirty minutes.

So, if a dwindling tax base was the problem- how will lawlessness solve that problem?

“When I came on the job 25 years ago, (daily) manpower was at 290, now it’s down to 150. For a city the size of Detroit, that’s nothing,” said Senior Lt. James (J.D.) Davis. “We’re going further, fighting more fires and with less firefighters.”

“I’m a senior lieutenant, this is my 26th year, I’m 45 years old, and I put my tank on when my men put their tank on. I take my tank off when my men take their tank off,” Davis said.

“We don’t have officers who stand outside and delegate. We have to be with our men.”

That’s not a change for men like Davis, that’s the way it’s always been. But with the layoffs, the average age of a firefighter in Detroit went up to 47 years old, making fatigue possibly more dangerous than fire.

One of the other changes to the DFD is the protocol for box alarms. They went from three engines, down to two with a truck, a squad and a chief.

That means that for every fire in Detroit, they have at least six less firefighters than other big cities, with no EMS on the scene unless requested.

Most cities have police and EMS assist on the scene of every fire. Not in Detroit- where every police and EMS are a precious commodity. In Detroit, rigs are getting robbed of their ladders at fire scenes.

Chiefs have the power to request another engine once they arrive and assess the situation, but obviously that is another delay in the fight. How far will the extra engine have to travel – if one is available at all?

Ladder trucks now need to cover areas the size of twenty square miles. These are the trucks needed to rescue a person from a 5th floor apartment.

Firefighters on the front lines are very concerned that safety is being compromised. For the citizens- and for them. There have been many fire-related deaths of civilians this year- but there is no uproar. There hasn’t been a public connection between cause and effect. The firefighters see it though.

Does Detroit City Hall believe there’s an acceptable loss of life? That’s the perception among police and firefighters – that their lives aren’t valued, nor are the lives of residents.

Since the company closings and increased brown-outs in August alone, there have been seven fire-related deaths, some of whom lived near an engine house that was browned out.

That delay of the added distance very well contributed to some of the fatalities. And that was just a month.

In Detroit, that is just a statistic. In a wealthier city, there would be a public outcry over the deaths.

“You can’t use a budget to compromise safety,” said McNamara.

If you ask the commissioner what his plan is to offset the cuts, he speaks of a fire-corps, fire prevention and a newly installed GPS system in rigs.

If you ask a firefighter about his plan, you’ll get confusion.

“What’s the fire-corps?”

“Never heard of it.”

As far as GPS goes – that’s not a plan, and seems like a waste of money on rigs where they are so busy they know the city like the back of their hand. If the driver is detailed in from somewhere else – there is at least one firefighter on the rig who will know exactly how to get where they need to go.

There may be more of a need for it now – with engines going from the west side to the east – and so on, trying to cover more territory.

But if you gave the middle-aged guys on the ground, the decision to buy GPS, or pay for another firefighter to be on the job, they’d pick the firefighter.

The final cuts, layoffs and demotions took place Aug. 23. Engine 10 was stripped sometime in September, so reopening is impossible, and the beautiful historic building will fall to ruins, like much of Detroit.

This week, the city plans to call back the laid-off firefighters with grant money. But since those lay-offs first occurred, many firefighters have retired and there is no plan to replace them – or the destroyed firehouses.

“We’re at critical mass,” said McNamara. “We’re really worried we’re going to see something that we’ve never seen before, that it’s going to be disastrous.”

Hopefully, critical mass is enough to prevent firefighter deaths and severe injuries.

Hopefully, residents will learn how to fight their own fires until firefighters can arrive.

Hopefully, the arsons will just go away on their own.

Hope, however, is not a plan. Unless your plan is to surrender to the devil.

Constance York is a freelance writer, photographer and filmaker. York created a documentary about the challenges inside the Detroit Fire Department.