Detroit’s new fire engines delayed by questionable changes, lack of oversight

One of Detroit's Smeal fire engines, via Facebook.
One of Detroit’s Smeal fire engines, via Facebook.

Detroit was supposed to have 10 new fire engines on the road by the Fourth of July weekend, which has become a more destructive period for fires than Devil’s Night, but a lack of oversight and incessant changes have caused a delay that caught even Mayor Mike Duggan’s Office by surprise.

Only one Smeal engine will be ready, and it will be stationed downtown, far from the neighborhoods that most need the protection. That means the city will depend even longer on frail, long-neglected rigs that have been breaking down at unprecedented rates.

Just over the weekend, two fire engines broke down along the side of the road. Others are operating without working pumps or monitors, causing fires to burn longer and cause more damage.

Facebook smealLast year, Mayor Duggan proudly announced that the city was buying 10 new fire engines from Nebraska-based Smeal Fire Apparatus Co. for $5.8 million. The rigs were supposed to be done by the end of June, and Duggan’s office last month posted on Facebook that the delivery would be on time.

But behind the scenes, the process was delayed by about 30 “change orders” that altered the cost and design of the rigs but were kept hidden from the city’s apparatus committee, which is responsible for oversight. Even as the apparatus committee members prepared to arrive at Smeal today to inspect the first rigs, they were deprived of records and basic information about the engines.

Deputy Commissioner Craig Dougherty, who had the information and worked directly with Smeal, was barred from speaking to me by the Mayor’s Office.

Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins insisted he knew nothing of the change orders.

Smeal officials declined to comment on the engine delays.

“I’m not getting into the political,” Jeff Wegner, Smeal’s vice president of sales, told me Monday, referring questions to Dougherty.

Jenkins said he expects the city to receive all of the engines by Aug 14.

The city also plans to buy new ladder trucks, but that process also has been delayed.

 

As firefighter brace for the three-day Fourth of July weekend, they likely won’t forget last year: More than 100 fires broke out in apartments, commercial buildings, houses and garages. During the three-day period surrounding Devil’s Night last year, 97 fires broke out.

 

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.