People are dying because Detroit doesn’t have enough medics on the ground.
Under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, we requested records that show basic information about each ambulance run over the past three months. The city took more than twice the amount of time required by state law to respond, and then demanded between $26,332 and $42,272 to produce the records.
Even if we forked over the money, the city law department maintained, “neither the Fire Department nor the Law Department has the human resources to process your request, as written, without disrupting the regular business of either department,” wrote Ellen Ha, the law department’s chief of staff.
The request would be such a burden, Ha maintains, that it would disable emergency communications.
In other words, not even money will get these records.
So here’s how the city managed to keep public information from becoming public. Although we requested electronic documents, as allowed under the state’s public records law, the city insisted it was necessary to print out all 31,092 computer-aided dispatch (CAD) records, a common source of public safety information that is readily available in most cities and counties. And to print out those records, Ha said, a fire dispatcher would need as many as 2,591 hours – or 323 consecutive business days.
During that time, Ha said, dispatchers would be unable to alert firefighters to emergencies.
“Please note that this process will not only take out a dispatcher from performing his/her regular duties for weeks, but will also tie up a printer used by everyone at the Fire Communications for the duration,” Ha wrote.
Some of the other costs, which are more reasonable, account for time spent redacting personal information that would violate HIPAA privacy laws.
We plan to appeal the costs and urge Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration to work with us to gain access to the records, which will paint a clearer picture of the EMS crisis.
The city is notorious for charging excessive costs to obtain records, and it has been forced to pay back six-figure attorney fees for unlawfully withholding records.
This is what a CAD report looks like:
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.