What can go wrong in a day? A whole lot for the Detroit Fire Department


Video by Michael Evans. 

Part of our yearlong investigation of the beleaguered Detroit Fire Department. 

When Detroit firefighters suit up for a run, they have come to expect just about anything.

Take Monday, as temperatures dipped below zero. Firefighters were called to an occupied house fire at 8066 Pressler on the east side. Bullet casings were strewn about from a fresh shooting. No police were on the scene.

Firefighters wasted no time extinguishing the blaze, nor did they hesitate when the house caught fire again a few hours later.

At an apartment fire that broke out at 9:48 a.m. at 5900 Michigan, two firefighters, two police officers and a tenant were injured after it appears a space heater sparked a fire that spread to several rooms in the three-story brick building. Luckily none of the injuries was serious.

At 6:45 p.m., firefighters arrived to a fire in the basement of a stately, two-story house at 1445 W. Chicago. But weak water pressure from the hydrants prevented firefighters from containing the blaze. When they tried to increase the pressure using Engine 39’s pump, the rig malfunctioned and was sent to the shop.

Related: Man dies in burning home just blocks from recently closed fire station 

Flames consumed a stately home on W. Chicago. Photo by Michael Evans .
Flames consumed a stately home on W. Chicago. Photo by Michael Evans .

Soon after, Ladder 7’s aerial tower also malfunctioned, leaving firefighters outmatched as flames began to consume the home. (Four people died in April 2000 after one of Ladder 7’s former rigs failed to raise the aerial ladder to rescue people from the burning Pallister Plaissance Apartments.)

Between 7:28 p.m. and 7:51 p.m., fires broke out in two houses within a block of each other. And at 8:30 p.m., a civilian was injured at a house fire at 13095 Corbett.

During the 24-hour period, fires damaged or destroyed nine houses and three apartments.

Days like this are why we are tracking every fire this year – an estimated 3,000-plus in houses, apartments and other buildings, if the past few years are any indication. The city’s aging, long-neglected fleet of rigs is breaking down at an alarming rate; fire hydrants often don’t work; and station closures mean fires are burning longer and causing more damage.

Other stories in this series:

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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.

  • carol

    I have the utmost respect for all the dtf and paramedics in Detroit
    Would love to see the city bounce back, as for all corruption and missing funds ask a firefighter what they make an hour. Then take a look at the equipment they have to use,maybe next time you have a fire you should just call a politician!??

  • 1Joshua

    Looks like the Snooze picked up on your work, Steve. I hope they give you credit, soon.

  • Mikey Jones

    I realize how dedicated the members of DFD are to their calling, but how do you maintain that day after week after month after year when it never gets any better. Salute!

  • Elena Herrada

    Too bad Detroit can not access the multibillion dollars in the Fire Protection Fund that comes from the Driver Responsibility fees. Only the State Treasurer has access to it and it has no public oversight. Comforting thought that such honest people as Andy Dillon and Snyder are guarding the public good.

    • banmar

      Élana, you might want to see if this fund has a designated use contained within the law that created them or in subsequent revisions of that bill. Many times statutes like have detailed requirements for collecting the funds but nothing on the back end designating how the collected monies should be spent. When that happens, the money remains in the State Treasury until legislation, either one-time or permanent, is passed denoting how the collected funds should be sent. If there is nothing permanent as to how the monies should be spent, the firefighting community, both volunteer and career, is far stronger than any political PAC of either party and garners huge support from the public at large. Even if it is spoken for to pay for BS things that aren’t firefighter training, personal protective equipment or firefighting vehicles, a good “whisper” campaign started by independent and corporate, print and TV journalists can change the course of where fire protection money flows.

      • Joeysback

        Good Idea! Let’s start “whispering”–really loudly!!

        • banmar

          The public “whispers” because the politicians have microphones. But a room full of people whispering still can drown out an amplified voice . . .

  • javierjuanmanuel

    The sad thing the money is there, the equipement is costly upfront, and of course old equipment takes more $$ to keep going, but as a percent of total budget 10-20 new trucks is not a big deal at all. You have all the other fixed costs like insurance, health care, disability, the cost of tore up old ass trucks, pensions, healthcare, a large force of guys makeing good money, around the clock service, all the adminstration is very very costly, and its all based around a bunch of tore up old ass POS. Fire trucks last for 20 years or more. You cannot have everything else, and have trucks that do not work, missing wood ladders, missing face masks, or other small cheap things, its just so incredibly stupid. The new trucks cost much less than the labor to run them.

    You can buy a new fire egine for 400k, and I am curious of they have looked at buy used ones from smaller towns that basically have almost no fires, and the fire engine miles are basically parade miles and a run once a month. You can find surplus fire engines from 1970s-1990s with less than 10,000 miles (mind you these are basically heavy duty truck frames and diesel engines good for a half million miles before a rebuild gets you another half million). These things get sold to country small towns for almost nothing, you can get them for like ten grand, sometimes as little as 3 grand for older ones.

    Why do they not have a half dozen back up trucks, even if they are from troy, southfield, macomb, shelby etc. They almost sell for scrap prices.

    • bebow

      The city isn’t interested in servicing areas outside of downtown and Midtown.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        Yeah I am aware of that, it has been a complaint of mine for years, and I live in the burbs. I have been telling my hipster friends what they are seeing in midtown, corktown, woodbridge, down town is not real. Its all fake, it is not sustainable, not fair, its an injustice, its a mirage.

        It is not unlike your friend spending up his inheritance in a year or two, then being broke, and you think he is doing really well, or some college kid getting credit and running up such a huge bill he cannot even pay the minimum payment. If they cannot do what they are doing everywhere, it is not real, and its completely immoral and unethical. What they are pulling off is done by neglecting other things. Again, it would be like putting all your money into a facade for your home, and the inside and they yard are falling apart. Its fake, you are not doing well. A huge portion of the city, is subsidizing a small area, and that small area is the one they want to talk about or put on the news, or speak of improvements.

        No improvement there makes a net postive difference, for every mugging you stop in DT, there is 5 houses being stripped a couple miles away.

        • bdcanuck

          What money is being diverted from other parts of the city to Corktown or Woodbridge? Other than WSU Police servicing Woodbridge, they don’t get fantastic police and fire response times relative to other areas, their streetlights are just flickering on now on some streets after neglect. The Downtown argument can be made because they cut tax breaks to big players then specifically tax them for downtown development, which seems like a resource diversion, but I don’t see that happening in other neighborhoods.

          • javierjuanmanuel

            More cops on the street per person, and they never went away. I agree its not fabulous service, but the numbers are not the same, the presence is not the same, the attitude is not the same. For example there are streets that have not had a sinngle street light on for 12 years, compare that to downtown. Its still the same city, it should be no difference. In most towns you can call the city, say my street light is out, and its replaced in three days or less. You do not see a half mile stretch or a mile stretch with not a single light workig. You see that in detroit in the neighborhoods.

            I have told people before, again over hyped hipster friends that think the areas I listed will all be 600k houses in just a few years, that corktown business owners had to pool together 1.5 million to get their street lights on. Its not great. You do not see business owners pool money to get sewers fixed in troy. I am not saying the areas they are focusing on are great, they are barely tolerable. They are ok, or fair. Not even good.

            But they are stacking the deck, or putting all the eggs in one basket, or name your cliche. The goal is to deny 80-90% of detroit a percent of their due services, put that compounded money and employees in some visable spots, make it better, and tell everyone detroit is all better.

    • banmar

      My township bought several rigs, including an aerial ladder, from towns in Ohio and Wisconsin who were consolidating their fire districts and putting their extra equipment up on a municipal auction site that most states allow there towns and cities use. We had to go pick them up and drive them back to NJ, but three of our volunteer firefighters with experience driving those rigs went and got them.

      I feel blessed with an embarrassment of riches after having five aerial towers respond to our historic fire to join our three when we had a bad fire in our beachfront historic district a week ago last Friday and our onsite vehicle maintenance contractor specializes in fire rig repair, from engine to pumper to aerial tower. I know DFD members have been disciplined for accepting donations, but I wonder if there is an “official” method of getting directed donations, even if it’s lending experienced fire truck repair specialists at the lender’s cost to Detroit for a week to try to clear the backlog of broken rigs. I know both volunteer and career firefighters have been following the problems with trying to fight fires in Detroit and the arson component for several years now; my firefighters aren’t the only ones.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        I do not think they can collect at street corners enough cash to buy a truck. Now maybe with a gofundme they can, but the fact is detroit has very very high taxes, where does it go ?

        I do not know for sure what we spend on our fire dept, but I know we spend 1.5 times on our cops, as compared to many other towns our size or bigger like atlanta, or houstan.

        Also it just looks bad, it seems scam like in the publics eye, the stations are funded, they are all tore up, then firemen are standing at intersections collecting boots full of cash. People say, they are pocketing half of it, then thats not good for the image of the station.

        I think its all the same reason well funded schools do not have toilet paper, or only one bathroom is open in a school of 1500 kids that was built with a dozen bathrooms, stuff like that. Where does the money go!

        • banmar

          We as a state (NJ) have some of the highest property taxes in the U.S. My town of 32,000 people would probably fit in just one neighborhood of Detroit, but I think city governments large and small have problems admitting they need help funding public safety equipment, especially after tax levies get ever higher. Clearly, you cannot collect enough in a weekend “stuff the boot” campaign to purchase an engine, pumper or ladder, but it can go a long way toward purchasing PPE through the Vulcan Society or another non-profit group that is approved by the DFD. Even previously-owned fire vehicles are mighty expensive and are in great demand. Given the city’s and county’s credit ratings, it would be best for the city to partner with the state to purchase vehicles, as the state would get the best financial value with the lowest interest rates possible for the purchases. Grants and low-interest loans for economically disadvantaged cities like Detroit, most of which will have no cash match for these loans and grants. To replace these firefighting vehicles through the grant programs could take years when they’re desperately needed now.

          There may well be an independent 501(c)3 that has a very close relationship with the DFD that could be able to accept monies collected toward the purchase of a new/new to Detroit engine, pumper or ladder, with the possibility of having a “Donated By” and the group’s name on the cab doors. Checking with the DFD to see which non-profits supporting them have the best recoRds for donating the majority of or all of the donations to the recipient.

  • queenie1

    Bless our firefighters who are risking their lives every day with this shoddy equipment. Much respect.

    • muckraker_steve

      Amen to that.