But Fire Commissioner Don Austin, with the opportunity to hire an additional 100 firefighters this year, has held up the process under a controversial plan to outsource a major component of the training and exam that prospective firefighters take to determine whether they are fit for the job.
On Friday, the administration quietly announced it would not begin taking applications for new firefighters on Monday, as planned, and placed the hiring process on hold indefinitely. That means the city’s aging, understaffed force will continue to operate without enough firefighters to handle more than 20 fires a day, many of which are deliberately set.
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“We have thousands of people who were getting ready to get their application,” Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, told me.
Austin’s plan is to outsource agility training to Schoolcraft Community College in Livonia, a move that starves the city of an estimated $300,000 or so in much-needed revenue, which would come from nominal fees charged to applicants.
“Our academy has the ability to continue doing what it has in Detroit by raising revenue for the city of Detroit and getting firefighters to help out,” McNamara said. “In this financial crisis, every penny counts as we try to keep money in a fire department that is in critical need of revenue.”
Since the city’s inception, Detroit has handled the recruitment, training and hiring of firefighters, allowing relatively young Detroiters a chance to serve their city and make a decent living. Studies also show that civil servants show more loyalty if they’re working in the city in which they live.
But moving the training to Livonia, which is a 20-minute drive from the Motor City, makes it difficult for many Detroiters to participate at a time when the city has staggering unemployment rates and few job opportunities.
In the early 1980s, a young Darrell Freeman, of Detroit, was mulling what he should do with his future. Then his mom encouraged him to take the fire exams in Detroit.
“Twenty-nine years later, I’ve had a wonderful career that I’ve loved,” said Freeman, who is now a captain with the Detroit Fire Department. “I stayed in the city and had a chance to make a difference. Our children deserve that chance.”
How understaffed is the fire department? After losing about 140 firefighters to retirement in the past year and a half and the closure of fire stations, the department can no longer respond as quickly and with as many firefighters as the past. That means fires are burning longer and causing more damage, increasing home insurance and blight, which are leading factors to Detroit’s rapid population decline.
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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.