Detroit’s top fire official, Don Austin, is resigning in wake of botched fire crisis

austin-donaldDetroit Fire Commissioner Don Austin, who botched the hiring of new firefighters, regularly conceals the severity of the fire crisis and oversaw drastic budget reductions, is resigning at the end of the year, city officials said today.

Residents began calling for Austin’s resignation this summer, saying he’s responsible for an increase in the number of fires that are decimating neighborhoods, jacking up home insurance rates and claiming lives.

Since Austin took the helm in May 2011, firefighters’ wages were cut 10%, arsons were drastically underreported and seven fire stations were permanently closed as part of a $24-million reduction in the department’s budget. Most of those stations have since been broken into and stripped over scrap metal.

Austin’s resignation wasn’t optional, city sources told us.

The Motor City Muckraker has been examining the fire department over the past year, revealing poor leadership, an inadequately staffed department and firefighters who are forced to work without the proper safety equipment or working trucks and engines.

Detroit Fire Department fighting fireFire trucks continue to break 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.

Austin’s administration regularly closes down stations over night to save money, despite a flare up of fires from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The city averages 30 fires a day, about half of which are suspected arsons. The city has only enough arson investigators to review 20% of suspected fires – an admission Austin made only after we offered the evidence.

Austin has declined numerous requests for interviews and stopped reporting when firefighters were injured or residents killed.

Firefighters have described the former Los Angeles fire chief as cold and uninspiring.

“Commissioner Austin provided much needed leadership to the department during his tenure,” Mayor Dave Bing said in a statement. “We are grateful for his contributions and improvements he has made to the Fire Department and EMS Division and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

In a written statement, Austin expressed optimism about the city’s future.

“To the citizens of Detroit, there is great promise ahead for this community and Fire Department,” Austin said. “I am encouraged by the commitment of members of the Department, unions, and private, public, and business sectors who continue to demonstrate their support for an efficient and effective public safety service model for Detroiters. “

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.