Exclusive: Detroit neglects hundreds of hydrants in downtown and neighborhoods

Hayward lost his home on W. Chicago after two fire hydrants failed. By Steve Neavling
Hayward Graves lost his home on W. Chicago after two fire hydrants failed. Steve Neavling/MCM

Part one of a series that examines the city’s woeful mismanagement of hydrants and the devastating impact on neighborhoods and residents. 

Hayward Graves watched in disbelief as flames consumed his three-story home in Detroit’s stately Boston-Edison Historic District.

Firefighters had arrived on time to extinguish the basement fire on Feb. 16, but the closest hydrant was out of service. The next hydrant malfunctioned.

“The firefighters did everything they could,” Graves said the next day, his 99-year-old colonial destroyed after burning for nearly five hours. “But what can you do without working hydrants?”

The hydrant outside of Graves’ house had been out of service for about seven months because city officials failed to take action, despite complaints from neighbors and firefighters.

Broken hydrant outside of a Detroit fire station for Engine 55 and Ladder 22. Steve Neavling/MCM
Broken hydrant outside of the Detroit fire station of Engine 55 and Ladder 22. Steve Neavling/MCM

A two-month Motor City Muckraker investigation has found that the city routinely neglects hundreds – if not thousands – of inoperable hydrants, endangering the lives of countless residents by leaving entire blocks of neighborhoods, downtown and Midtown without reasonable access to water. The hydrants, which are the primary weapons against a fire, are out of service in front of occupied houses, apartment high-rises, libraries, senior homes, historic buildings, a hospital, banks, restaurants, factories, religious institutions and even three fire stations.

hydrant ren cen downtown_5873
Out-of-service hydrant in front of the GM Renaissance Center. Steve Neavling/MCM

More than 15 downtown hydrants are broken, including ones that protect the GM Renaissance Center, Ford Field, the stately Old Wayne County Building, the YMCA, Cliff Bell’s jazz club, new businesses and one of the city’s oldest churches, the Central Methodist Church, which was built in 1866.

In some areas, including Midtown and historic Rosedale Park, two or more consecutive blocks have no functioning hydrants, which is a violation of federal law and an extreme hazard to residents and property. The National Fire Protection Association requires hydrants to be within 500 feet of a house or building so hoses can reach the blaze.

“We don’t have enough equipment or manpower, and our hydrants aren’t working,” Detroit firefighter Michael O’Lear, of Engine 52, told me. “It’s very dangerous, and the city needs to do something about it.”

Broken hydrant in front of occupied houses at Stahalin and Eaton. Steve Neavling/MCM
Broken hydrant in front of occupied houses at Stahelin and Eaton. Steve Neavling/MCM

The task of maintaining and repairing the city’s 30,000 hydrants belongs to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), a branch of Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration. Two weeks ago, a DWSD spokesman said the city knew of only 70 broken hydrants, which turns out to be a mere fraction of the real number.

Over the past two months, we surveyed roughly 15% of the city’s hydrants and found 279 that were flagged as inoperable by firefighters. Three more were cracked and gushing water.

The hydrants weren’t on abandoned blocks; they are in neighborhoods and along major roads. They’re outside of businesses, functioning factories and even a DWSD building.

The Duggan administration insisted it had no idea the problem was so widespread and pledged to waste no time correcting it.

“The Mayor has directed DWSD and the Fire Department, along with CIO Beth Niblock, to build a web-based reporting system that will track hydrant inspections, work orders and the status of repairs that can be updated dynamically,” mayoral spokesman John Roach told me. “The system will also allow the public to report broken hydrants.”

Broken hydrant outside of the downtown YMCA. By Steve Neavling/MCM
Broken hydrant outside of the downtown YMCA. By Steve Neavling/MCM

What remains unclear is how the administration managed to so poorly mishandle its responsibility over hydrants in a city with the highest arson rate in the nation.

Duggan’s administration has barred fire officials from talking to us and even declined our request under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act to produce a list of bad hydrants, claiming the information “would assist an arsonist to plan and to start a mass fire in those specific areas.”

The city also failed to produce records of hydrant inspections within the timeframe required by law and is now demanding more than $1,000 to turn over the records.

“DWSD continues to address hydrants daily,” DWSD spokesman Greg Enos said Wednesday after getting permission to issue a statement. “However, due to the largely paper-based system that has been in place for years, it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the overall issue citywide at any given moment, especially since hydrants are constantly being reported and repaired.”

Broken hydrant outside of a Detroit fire station for Engine 55 and Ladder 22. Steve Neavling/MCM
Broken hydrant outside of a Detroit fire station for Engine 55 and Ladder 22. Steve Neavling/MCM

Every day, firefighters are tasked with visually inspecting hydrants and reporting the problematic ones to DWSD. Firefighters usually place a yellow disc on the hydrants to indicate they are broken. But most firefighters have run out and are using yellow caution tape.

The real number of broken hydrants may never be known because the city does not inspect a vast majority by turning them on. Firefighters are told to rely on visual inspections, which cannot detect many problems.

So firefighters often don’t know a hydrant is broken until they need one for a fire. During a three-day period last month, firefighters came across nine bad hydrants while trying to extinguish six fires. The damage was significant.

Firefighters couldn't control a fire inside Natasha Miller's house because of broken hydrants. Steve Neavling/MCM
Firefighters couldn’t control a fire inside Natasha Miller’s house because of broken hydrants. Steve Neavling/MCM

One of the fires started inside the home of Natasha Miller in the early morning hours of Feb. 24. When firefighters tried to hook up the pumper to the nearest hydrant, it was broken. Firefighters dashed to the end of the block at Sorrento and Ellis, but the hydrant was out of service. A half block north, another hydrant was out of service in front of a burned-out house. By the time firefighters found a working hydrant, the fire had consumed Miller’s home and spread to her neighbor’s house.

The next morning, I found Miller standing outside the charred remains of her house, sobbing while she waited for the Red Cross.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, tears frozen to the side of her cheeks. “I lost everything. It’s all gone.”

The prospect of a fire has prompted Julie Morris to consider moving back to the suburbs after she started renting an apartment in Midtown, the city’s most stable area with first-rate hospitals, museums and two colleges. Her apartment is on a congested, historic stretch of Prentis that has no working hydrants on two consecutive blocks between Cass and Third. One of the bad hydrants is in front of the popular Bronx Bar. The other two are in front of two tall apartments.

All of the hydrants are wrapped in yellow caution tape:

hydrants Prentis_0550 hydrants Prentis_0551 hydrants Prentis_0555

Other areas of Detroit are just as vulnerable, with two or more blocks without a working hydrant, a serious violation of National Fire Protection Association standards.

In historic Rosedale Park, all of the hydrants are broken on a two-block stretch of Glastonbury, an English-themed street with occupied tudor-style homes and colonials.

Chandler Park
Seven broken hydrants in a small area east of Chandler Park.

Broken hydrants also riddle a neighborhood east of Chandler Park, where firefighters were thwarted by six broken hydrants on Feb. 22. Three of them are on a two-block stretch of Coplin, where Jordan Davis would be out of luck if a fire broke out.

“I worry about fires all the time,” said Davis, 63, whose block has at least four burned-out houses. “But that’s Detroit. You always gotta be looking out for something.”

Identifying and fixing the bad hydrants won’t be easy. Detroit Chief Operations Officer Gary Brown said the city is “reconciling the lists that DWSD and DFD have of the fire hydrants needing repair to make sure crews are getting to all of them as quickly as possible and that none are overlooked.”

Getting money to fix the hydrants is the next step, and Brown said the funding would come from the Great Lakes Water Authority, a newly formed partnership between Detroit and Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. The group is tasked with overseeing operations of the city’s water department.

These Rosedale Park homes have no nearby hydrants that work. By Steve Neavling
These Rosedale Park homes have no nearby hydrants that work. By Steve Neavling

“Ultimately, the solution is major capital investment in our water system, which is why it is so important for the Great Lakes Water Authority to get off the ground,” Brown said. “When it does, we will have access the $50 million a year we can use to rebuild Detroit’s water system and replace more broken hydrants. We already have DWSD crews assessing all of our underground assets including the hydrants, which will be placed at the top of the list in terms of priority when this funding becomes available.”

Our series on bad hydrants continues tomorrow as we explore the reason the hydrants are breaking. We’ll also post a photo of every broken hydrant that we found. The series will continue through next week.

This is part of our yearlong examination of every fire in Detroit. Please consider a contribution so that we can continue to monitor the beleaguered, long-neglected fire department.

Other stories in the series:

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.

  • Patrick Griffith

    I do see the fire dept checking the hydrants in the ciry, have for years, but it’s pure neglect on the city’s behalf if they are not being fixed when reported broken. Another example things not done in detroit that I’ll never understand.

  • Nikolaos Koutsovelis

    Hey bigmouth mortgage ripoff-artist Gilbert…wanna actually do something for Detroit? Fix this problem..on YOUR nickel

    • javierjuanmanuel

      Union calls the shots here. None of this work gets done if it is not long time city dudes, on the clock …. I suspect preferably overtime hours.

      Dan cannot just send out a crew, he would NEVER be allowed to do that, you have no idea how big cities are run, do you?

  • Nikolaos Koutsovelis

    Oh wonderful! Scammer Brown is involved in this? It’ll be the same results as the snow plowing. When will anyone figure out this clown is useless as tits on a bull?

  • Kennett Routin

    This story should get picked up on a national basis. Spot on journalism.

  • christine

    Thanks for covering this issue Steve! I live around the corner from the house that burned down on Chicago. I was disappointed to see such a great house burn to the ground. I was also afraid that the fire would spread. I live across the street from a broken fire hydrant that I have been calling on since last summer.

    I am getting ready to try reporting through the Detroit Delivers ap. I am excited to see if that works better than calling it in. The ap has worked really ready for other things I have been trying to report in the neighborhood.

  • maggiemay

    Terrifying, my young daughter lives on Prentiss. I’m going to make sure her apt. at least has a smoke detector and that it works.

  • Holistic

    If its the DWSD that you depend on to fix this then when doe it get fixed to do this. One broken system depending on another broken system.

  • nolimitdetroiter

    And we wonder why insurance rates are where they are. Would you write a policy under these conditions?
    BTW, did someone sign off on these broken hydrants as being functional and was someone paid for doing this “inspection”?

    • javierjuanmanuel

      Then they only investigate 20-25 % of the burned down homes. I just assume anything over the national average is arson, we are not suited for arson more so than other towns, so anything more than average is arson.

      I have no idea why insurance companies take work there, it must be mandated by the state, that they serve detroit if they serve wayne county, or if they serve the rest of the state, they have to do detroit also.

  • javierjuanmanuel

    As a reference point, in nice areas people get very upset if you park infront of a hydrant. The idea of vandalizing, stealing parts etc does not happen, if it did happen, it would be fixed in 24 hours, and there is a working hydrant 250 ft down the street for sure.

  • javierjuanmanuel

    At a certain point charging people taxes for service like this is fraud. This is criminal. I am sick of hearing detroit is coming back, its boom town or some such nonsense. Half the people in 2013 did not pay their city taxes, the schools graduate 25%, the roads are third world, police show up the next day after you call them, the police 911 is told to tell you unless someone has broken in your house and is currently there in the house with you — not to expect a cop to show up, fire stations get broken into, and we cannot get fire hydrants to work.

    WTF ! Nothing in midtown matters if the above is not fixed and not as nice as any other large well run city that is widely considered to be nice.

    Hving TP in the schools and more than one bathroom open in a school of 1600 kids would be nice also.

    • banmar

      Call me Pollyanna, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could crews from every available to converge on Detroit and fix the hydrants, just like how crews from other states swarm into a storm-battered city. I know, dream on!

      • javierjuanmanuel

        The unions would never allow it.

        We could donate TP though, or tutor kids to read if you have the inclination.

        Its not a one time onslaught to fight back the storm or put up a million sand bags, we need to beat back the ghetto, and the terrible complacency.

        • banmar

          True that, Javier, true that.

        • banmar

          Let the unions join in on a weekend of service to Detroit. I live out here in 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy territory; a weekend blitz attack on broken hydrants by the plumbers and the sprinks union members both from and traveling to Detroit is not that farfetched an idea when you consider how much assistance Detroit has provided to the East Coast in our time of need.

    • bebow

      Yes, collecting taxes to fund services only for a select few is fraud, which is why more than half of property owners in the neighborhoods won’t pay. What happened here destroyed entire neighborhoods before the financial meltdown. The city out-slicked itself, and there’s no sign it’s learned a damn thing.