Detroit investigates just 20% of suspicious fires, underreports arson

fire_0393The Detroit Fire Department reported an eye-popping 41% drop in arsons last year, a stunning feat considering Mayor Bing’s administration closed down seven firehouses and laid off firefighters that summer.

Turns out, arsons were vastly underreported. An examination of records obtained from the Fire Department and insurance analysts shows firefighters responded to more than 5,000 suspicious fires last year. But the department only reported 562 arsons.

Part of the problem: The number of arson investigators who determine the cause of suspicious fires dropped by nearly 60% since 2009. The arson unit is so understaffed that it’s lucky to investigate one out of every five suspicious blazes, the records show.

austin-donaldFires that are not investigated, including ones where Molotov cocktails are found, aren’t reported as arsons.

“Detroit is not going out and investigating their fires,” Lori Conarton, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute of Michigan, told me. “Arsons are far more common than they are reported.”

The failure is emblematic of an administration that has made numerous blunders and never delivered on the pledge to improve public safety.

Most recently, Fire Commissioner Don Austin delayed the hiring of desperately needed firefighters because of flaws in a controversial plan to outsource fire training to Schoolcraft Community College in Livonia.

That and numerous other complaints about Austin’s two-year tenure are prompting calls for his resignation.

“The city of Detroit is a step away from catastrophe,” said Brandon Jessup, CEO of Michigan Forward Urban Affairs Group.  “Detroit’s first line of defense for medical emergency, fire, natural disaster, terrorist attack or release of hazardous materials is our Fire Department. Commissioner Austin is gambling with the lives of Detroit’s firefighters and residents through his management decisions. Firefighter and public safety take precedence over loss of resources; Commissioner Austin’s preference to outsource more Detroit assets is costing Detroit millions.”

When Austin took the job in May 2011, he pledged to make a “tremendous impact right away.” But consider this:

  • His administration neglected to hire inspectors to examine hydraulic flaws in the aerial ladder trucks, forcing him to bar the use of the ladders unless lives are at risk.
  • Austin closed seven firehouses last summer and failed to properly secure the buildings, allowing thieves and scrappers to gut most of the fire quarters.
  • During his tenure, the number of firefighters dropped by about 25%.
  • His administration is among the least transparent and accessible in Detroit, failing to provide even the most basic information about public safety.
  • The fire stations have fallen into disrepair, and firefighters are forced to spend their own money fixing sewage backups and other problems. The department even ran out of toilet paper for firefighters, whose wages were cut 10%.
  • Firefighters are increasingly at risk of injury because of a serious shortage of adequate safety equipment.
  • Homeowner insurance continues to rise because fires are burning longer and causing more damage.

FireWith more than 80,000 abandoned buildings spanning 139 square miles, Detroit is ripe for arsons. Thrill-seekers, emboldened by low arrest rates, toss Molotov cocktails at vacant buildings. Homes that can’t sell on the market are burned for insurance money, and people fed up with dilapidated buildings torch them.

The impact on arsons is devastating. Property values plummet, neighborhoods are burned out, and residents flee at unprecedented rates.

“This is a human rights violation,” Detroit activist Malik Shabazz told me of Austin’s handling of the Fire Department. “Not only does Don Austin need to resign, there needs to be an investigation of the Fire Department. What’s happening is a shame before God.”

Bing’s office declined to speak about Austin’s performance and referred questions to Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who is now responsible for the oversight of the fire department.

“Since arriving in Detroit, Kevyn Orr has made improving public safety one of his top priorities,” his spokesman Bill Nowling said. “In addition to the 23 new EMS ambulances secured by Mayor Bing, the city has purchased new bunker gear for firefighters and is in the middle of a comprehensive overhaul of operations at the Detroit Fire Department including the hiring and training of new firefighters, the purchase of modern firefighting equipment and better strategic deployment of existing resources. These changes do not come without cost and that’s why it is imperative  the city move swiftly through the bankruptcy process so it can redirect budget dollars to needed public services.”

Austin, who came from the Los Angeles Fire Department, wouldn’t comment for this report.

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.