Detroit’s aging fleet of fire trucks falls into disrepair, leaving residents vulnerable

The Detroit Fire Department is dangerously close to running out of trucks and engines to respond to fires because the aging, overrun fleet is breaking down faster than mechanics can make repairs, the Motor City Muckraker has found.

Because of the backlog, an increasing number of fire trucks and engines are rushing to fires with bad brakes, engine problems and malfunctioning lights and sirens. They’re also breaking down before they can reach fires, which end up burning longer and causing more damage.

The future looks even bleaker. Mayor Dave Bing’s 2013-14 spending plan seeks to reduce the budget for repairs by 15%, or $1.6 million, and includes no money for new rigs.

“Think about what it would cost for safety, recruitment, morale, or liability to continue to use an older, repaired truck,” said John Hill, fire rig expert for First Bankers, which advises fire departments on when to replace trucks.

On Friday, at least six trucks and engines broke down on the way to fires.

FireTwo of those trucks broke down while responding to an occupied house fire on the city’s west side. Thirty minutes passed by the time the first ladder truck arrived. By then, the fire had gutted two neighboring homes. 

Residents grew angry; some panicked.

Ross Davis uncoiled a garden hose to help spray down his friend’s front lawn, where large embers set his grass ablaze.

“This is insane,” Davis yelled in frustration. “Where the hell are all the firefighters?”

The short answer: Mayor Dave Bing and City Council reduced the fire department’s budget by 20% last year, cutting stations and continuing a hiring freeze that has drastically reduced the number of  firefighters, as part of a broad plan to reduce a $380 million deficit.

The future looks even bleaker. Mayor Dave Bing’s 2013-14 budget proposal seeks to reduce the budget for repairs by 15%, or $1.6 million, and includes no money for new rigs.

Because of the growing backlog of repairs, the block-long garage where repairs are made near Eastern Market has run out of space. As many as eight trucks and engines were recently parked in an adjacent empty lot.

Without replacement rigs, firefighters are often forced to hold off on repairs and maintenance until the aging trucks and engines no longer run. That has led to dozens of fire trucks and engines breaking down while responding to fires in the past month, records show.

“There are no extra vehicles to replace front line ones,” Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, told us. “We have vehicles that have been in our repair shops for many months.”

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Steve Neavling, who lives on the city’s east side, is an investigative journalist, a freelance reporter for Reuters and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Neavling explores corruption, Detroit’s unsung heroes 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.