Firefighters who need emergency gear better cross fingers

Fire Repair ShopDetroit firefighters can’t get a break.

They’re rushing to an increasing number of fires in malfunctioning trucks and engines that should have been replaced years ago. Their stations and personal vehicles are getting broken into. And they’re working with 10% pay cuts.

This week, firefighters will have trouble accessing emergency gear like gloves, helmets, boots and masks because of a staff shortage. Without the proper equipment, firefighters can’t go in service, which jeopardizes the public’s safety.

The gear is stored in the same building that houses the department’s repair shop in Eastern Market. The only way to access it this week, firefighters said, is to track down the duty officer at the repair shop to get permission for a shop employee to search an unfamiliar area for the gear because no one else is available to retrieve it.

In a city that averages about 30 fires a day, any delay can mean the difference between life and death.

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who has pledged to improve public safety after inheriting a budgetary nightmare, is in the midst of overseeing big changes in the fire department, his office told us this afternoon.

“The emergency manager and his restructuring team is in the process of a bottom-up review of the Detroit Fire Department,” EM spokesman Bill Nowling said. “Certainly one of the already identified areas of need is on apparatus maintenance. This is not a new issue, and it existed long before a financial emergency was declared for the city of Detroit. It will be addressed in the department’s restructuring plan.”

Change couldn’t come soon enough, said community leaders, some of whom have called on the resignation of Fire Commissioner Don Austin.

Most recently, Austin’s administration is to blame for a critical delay in hiring about 100 firefighters. Austin also acknowledged that the fire department only investigates about 20% of suspected fires because of a severe shortage in arson investigators.

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.