Elderly woman’s house burns for 21 minutes before strapped Detroit Fire Department responds

There was little she could do but watch her house and life possessions burn away as she waited 21 minutes for Detroit fire fighters to arrive Saturday night.

What started as a small, manageable fire in her basement turned into a raging blaze that destroyed her home near Southfield and 8 Mile.

That’s because the closest available company – Engine 33/Ladder 13 – was 18 miles away.

“The house was totally engulfed when we arrived, and it had started with a small fire in the basement,” firefighter Ted Copley said. “An old lady now has nothing. Epic fail by the city.”

The national standard for response times in cities is 4 minutes and 2 seconds, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Fires are burning longer and becoming more destructive because Mayor Dave Bing’s administration has closed 15 stations in the past 18 months, and nearly as many are closed each night as part of temporary closures called “brown outs,” said Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Firefighters Association.

Cople said his crew passed “God knows how many closed or browned out firehouses” enroute to Saturday’s blaze.

“We are handicapped when our leaders ignore the realities that we see every day on the streets of Detroit,” McNamara said. “Public safety cannot be ignored or compromised. It cannot be measured by income levels or political pull. Public safety is about everyone in our community receiving equal protection. When leaders compromise the residents they are to protect and represent the whole system fails.”

Less than a week ago, a disabled man died in his east-side house after firefighters took two times the national standard to respond because the closest two fire stations were closed.

The budget cuts – $184 million to $160 million – come in the midst of an arson crisis that is tapping resources.

Detroit Fire Commissioner Don Austin, who has drawn scorn from firefighters, said Bing’s administration is doing everything it can to improve the situation in spite of the city’s budget problems.

“Mayor Bing has made public safety a top priority for the City of Detroit,” Austin said. “The city’s financial crisis has not prevented the Mayor from finding resources to provide proper fire protection for Detroit neighborhoods. In the past year alone, we secured $28.1 million in FEMA grants that provided two years of salaries and benefits for Detroit firefighters. That prevented 108 firefighter layoffs and allowed us to rehire 26 firefighters. An additional $1.75 million from FEMA, combined with $900,000 in City funds, paid for new protective gear for two-thirds of our firefighters.”

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Steve Neavling is an investigative journalist and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Living on the city’s east side, Neavling explores corruption, civil liberties and the underbelly of an oft-misunderstood city.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.