As fires ravage Detroit’s neighborhoods at rates unseen since the arson epidemic of the 1980s, Mayor Bing’s administration is waging a quiet war to prevent the public from learning about the depth of problems within the beleaguered fire department.
So far this year, fires have claimed the lives of 27 people, mostly in areas where the mayor closed fire stations last year. Fire trucks are breaking down at unprecedented rates, and repairs are woefully slow. Firefighters often are forced to buy their own safety equipment, and arson investigators are rarely available.
A year after Bing cut $24 million from the fire department and closed seven stations, his administration has little to say about fires that are claiming lives, driving up insurance rates, accelerating the residential exodus and tearing apart neighborhoods.
“They don’t want the public to know what’s really going on,” Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, told me. “People are scared. Houses around them are burning down. Their insurance rates are outrageously high. They’re fed up.”
An internal memo that was leaked in February revealed that all of the city’s ariel ladders, which are critical to containing a fire and saving lives, were out of federal compliance and therefore should not be used unless someone is in danger.
Finally, after four months, inspectors examined seven aerial ladders last week. Five more are being inspected this week.
What have inspectors found so far? How much will the repairs cost – and can the city afford it? When will the ladders be fully functional?
Bing’s office and Fire Commissioner Donald Austin dodged our questions.
Fire sources told us most, if not all, of the aerial ladders failed to meet standards and may require expensive repairs or replacements. In Bing’s 2013-14 budget, he proposed cutting the fire department’s maintenance and repair costs.
Responding publicly to the challenges is not the administration’s style. The fire department no longer alerts the media to civilian fatalities or firefighter injuries, diminishing the public’s exposure to the arson epidemic.
But the administration is quick to spread positive news. In an internal memo entitled, “Critically Important,” fire officials urged the mayor’s office to encourage the media to publicize a new foam designed to reduce the severity of fires.
“I need your assistance with getting the word out to the media to attend this demonstration, which will demonstrate to their viewers that the Fire Department is working diligently to improve outcomes even as we manage a reduction is our field deployment,” the memo read.
The mayor’s office declined to comment on our fire safety questions.
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.