Highland Park firefighters risk lives over turf battle with Detroit

Flames were ripping through the second floor of an occupied house when Highland Park firefighters arrived.

Instead of calling for help from Detroit under an improved mutual aid agreement, the commanding officer decided to go it alone, a disastrous decision that risked the lives of his fellow firefighters and caused the blaze to burn for more than four hours Sunday morning.

376 Richton
This house at 376 Richton burned for 4 hours because Highland Park refused to call for help from Detroit. By Steve Neavling/MCM

But the poor decision-making, which is now under investigation by Highland Park officials, didn’t end there. Angry that the blaze was growing, the commanding officer, Lt. Eric Hollowell, demanded that firefighters stay in the burning house until the blaze was out.

“Do not come back out of that house until that second floor is out,” Hollowell told firefighters at 5:52 a.m. “All interior crew, acknowledge.”

“Got the message,” one crew responded.

When the firefighters emerged from the house, three of them were treated at the scene for injuries.

“This was unacceptable,” Highland Park Fire Chief Derek Hillman told me. “I want to make sure this is handled properly and never happens again. The idea behind mutual aid was to make Highland Park safer.”

This wasn’t the first time Highland Park jeopardized lives and property by refusing to call Detroit since entering into an automatic mutual aid agreement in November 2014.

Shortly after 11 p.m. on March 21, Highland Park firefighters arrived to a house fire after several people, including one with third-degree burns, jumped from the second floor of a house on Ford Street near Woodward. Even as flames began to scorch the neighboring house, Highland Park firefighters never called for help and lost control of the blaze, which burned for more than five hours.

In Detroit, a house rarely burns for more than an hour because the city has more experienced firefighters and more rigs. It’s the big reason that Highland Park entered into an automatic mutual aid agreement with Detroit in November 2014. Click here to read the agreement.

For Detroit, the agreement has been an invaluable asset, quickly putting more firefighters on the scene of a blaze. Since the pact was signed, Highland Park firefighters have helped Detroit extinguish more than 40 house fires, according to a Motor City Muckraker tally.

But sources within both departments said tensions have mounted over who takes command of a fire. On March 2, as flames swept through four houses at the Detroit-Highland Park border, Detroit firefighters requested a senior chief because a Highland Park officer allegedly became belligerent after losing command to a more senior Detroit fire official.

“I have a situation with the officer of Highland Park,” a Detroit chief reported to dispatchers, calling for more Detroit firefighters.

Detroit Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins said his firefighters are prepared to help Highland Park any time the city calls for help.

 

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.