On a normal day, Detroit firefighters barely scrape by.
Their aging rigs routinely break down; fire hydrants often fail; and manpower is at historic lows.
Now imagine those challenges in sub-zero temperatures and blustery snow.
We monitored every fire run from Tuesday evening until this morning to gauge the depth of the department’s problems, and what we found was troubling. In that period, firefighters extinguished more than 75 fires in houses, apartment buildings and cars.
And it wasn’t pretty.
Take Tuesday afternoon on the city’s west side. What started as a small electrical fire burned for 20 minutes before a working engine arrived at the occupied house at 15353 Ilene. The first two engines malfunctioned at the scene, and the third operated for about an hour before it too needed to be replaced.
The fire rekindled three times, and the home was gutted.
Here’s what we also found:
- More than a dozen engines and trucks broke down or malfunctioned at the scene or while responding to fires since Tuesday afternoon. One of those was Engine Co. 1, leaving downtown with minimal fire protection.
- The overstretched department used a small fire engine, TAC-2, which is designed to handle minor fires in parking lots and trash cans, to respond alone to reported fires in three high-rise apartments near the riverfront – the River Towers, Whittier Manor and Parkview Tower & Square.
- A commercial building at Greenfield and Schoolcraft burned for more than 40 hours because of malfunctioning fire hydrants, broken-down rigs and frozen equipment. The building rekindled four times, drawing more than 10 companies from across Detroit.
- Without heat at their quarters, a fire engine (Co. 40) and ladder truck (Co.17) were out of service because they couldn’t thaw their frozen hoses after a fire. They eventually warmed up at Highland Park’s fire quarters.
- More than a dozen burned-out cars blocked streets or smoldered on sidewalks for hours because police weren’t available.
- An injured civilian was urged to find a ride to the hospital because paramedics were unavailable.
Mayor Mike Duggan, who took control of the fire department as part of an agreement with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, said he’s wasting no time trying to improve the department. His administration already appointed an interim chief and restructured the leadership with officials supported by firefighters, who’ve struggled with low morale in the wake of 10% pay cuts and deep reductions in benefits.
Mayoral spokesman John Roach said the fire department has already ordered turbo heaters to help thaw out frozen equipment in the event of additional heater problems.
“Now more will be purchased next week as backup for the Detroit Fire Department,” Roach told us.
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.