‘Rolling the dice:’ Detroit routinely sends dangerously defective rigs to fires

Engine 30 broke down after losing its gas tank en route to a house fire. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Engine 30 broke down after losing its gas tank en route to a house fire. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Part 1 of an ongoing series about the city’s defective fleet of rigs, poor management and shoddy maintenance. 

Detroit firefighters were racing to a reported house blaze in an outdated fire engine on a recent Sunday afternoon when they heard a loud thud. Behind them was the rig’s gas tank, ruptured and spewing fuel onto the west-side street and into nearby drains, triggering a hazardous materials cleanup.

The gas tank caused a hazardous spill. Photo by Steve Neavling.
The gas tank caused a hazardous spill. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Turns out, the maintenance shop passed off the replacement rig to the crew of Engine #30 after crudely fastening the tank to the bottom of the rig with what appeared to be a frayed and broken seatbelt. Another crew refused to drive the pumper because of wiring problems and a windshield bound together by a sticky goo. Over the next two days, the fire engine was responding to emergencies when it overheated and wouldn’t start because of a broken alternator.

It’s an all-too-common problem in a city that routinely violates state and federal safety laws by sending dangerously defective ladder trucks and engines to fires in occupied houses, high-rise apartments and commercial buildings, delaying response times, hampering rescue efforts and endangering firefighters, an 18-month Motor City Muckraker investigation has found.

In fact, at least 47 people have been injured or killed in fires where defective rigs were sent since Jan. 1, 2014, according to an analysis of thousands of records.

When rigs break down or malfunction, fires often burn longer and spread to adjacent houses and buildings, devouring neighborhoods, driving up insurance rates and accelerating the decades-long exodus.   

To blame are chronic issues that have plagued the fire department for decades – shoddy maintenance, poor management decisions and reckless budget cuts.

“Years of neglect and mismanagement have resulted in a situation where the fire department struggles every day to complete its mission,”wrote TriData, a national public safety consulting firm, in an in-depth report about the fire department’s serious troubles.

The reported added: “The DFD fleet is currently in a critical state, with chronic long-term management, maintenance, and replacement issues.”

After reviewing thousands of maintenance records, listening to more than 2,000 hours of scanner traffic and interviewing dozens of firefighters and apparatus experts, Motor City Muckraker has found:

  • Nearly all of the city’s 60 fire engines and ladder trucks are outdated, unreliable and have a long history of serious, repeated mechanical problems, from failing pumps to defective transmissions.
  • Fire rigs broke down en route to emergencies or at the scenes of fires more than 235 times since January 2014.   
  • Some rigs can’t pump water or raise a ladder, so their sole purpose is to ferry firefighters to fires.
  • The fire department often defers routine maintenance until rigs break down, causing more expensive, time-consuming repairs.
  • The city’s mechanics lack formal training, and the Fire Department was unable to provide records to show the mechanics are even certified.
  • The city’s 368 high-rise buildings are especially vulnerable because half of the city’s ladder trucks, which are used to rescue people and extinguish fires from the air, don’t have operable aerials because they failed safety inspections. Among them is the ladder that protects downtown Detroit, the Cass Corridor and Midtown.
  • Many hoses are rotting and breaking because the city has not inspected them in at least six years, despite national firefighting standards that call for annual testing.
  • The city’s active fleet has dropped from 66 rigs in 2010 to 48 today, leaving many areas without immediate fire protection and forcing aging firefighters to battle blazes with less manpower.   
  • Without enough reserve rigs, firefighters whose ladder trucks and engines are broken down often rely on a mini-pumper that is the size of a pickup truck to respond to more than 100 reported fires in occupied houses and buildings, even though it was designed to extinguish car and trash fires and contributed to the death of a little girl in 2011.
  • Not one of the city’s speciality rigs works. Detroit no longer has a foam truck for gas fires or a pumper to protect the city’s airport. And Detroit’s fire boat recently failed to pump water, rendering it useless.

No accountability

Mayor Duggan
Mayor Mike Duggan

Since taking office in January 2014, Mayor Mike Duggan has distanced himself from the Fire Department’s troubles, contributing to low morale among firefighters and providing little oversight over a department long criticized for mismanagement and cronyism.

The mayor declined to comment for this story and barred everyone in the fire department, including the executive fire commissioner, from speaking to us. The city only responded to some written questions and violated the law by failing to turn over maintenance, safety and apparatus records as required under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins
Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins

The fire administration, led by Executive Commissioner Edsel Jenkins, who makes $145,000 a year, also threatened to punish firefighters suspected of providing us with photos, records and other information about the dangerous fleet, even sending top brass to fire stations to sternly reinforce the message. One whistleblower has already been disciplined this year.

Firefighters, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said the fleet is in serious disrepair.

“Every night, it’s like rolling the dice. You just hope and pray that your rig starts and the pumps work,” a firefighter for an east-side engine company told Motor City Muckraker.

The city was supposed to have 10 new fire engines on the road in June, but only three have arrived so far because of a bidding scandal that resulted in hundreds of change orders and substandard pumpers, which are too large for some fire houses, including downtown’s. (This story will be featured next week)

So disturbed by the frail fleet, then-Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr ordered an outside review of the Fire Department by Tri-Data, a leading public safety consulting firm. The findings were disturbing.

Consultants found “profoundly weak management” that is “deeply ingrained in the fire department culture.”

Duggan’s office declined to say whether the mayor read the report or is even familiar with it.

Rigs jeopardize safety

Engine 9 caught fire at a church blaze on Woodward.
Engine 9 caught fire at a church blaze on Woodward.

Detroit’s 46 fire engines, 18 ladder trucks and six squads are rundown and unreliable, often left in service until they break down, log books show. As a result, rigs are routinely sent to fires with bad brakes, defective oil gauges, faulty hydraulic systems, mismatched tires, broken pumps, leaking fluids, nonworking sirens and lights and patchwork repairs that often come undone during emergencies.

Maintenance problems are so pervasive that at least half of the rigs have missed runs because they couldn’t start at their quarters in the past 18 months, according to dispatch reports and log books. Nearly all of them have broken down en route to a fire or on the scene.

In fact, fire rigs malfunctioned at least 235 times during that period, forcing dispatchers to call for help from distant companies.

On an early January morning, Ladder 17, the second busiest truck in Detroit, malfunctioned at the scene of a west-side fire, and firefighters were unable to quell flames in time to search the house before it collapsed. Neighbor Mary Collins looked on in horror, saying people were inside the house.

“We were unable to do a thorough search due to the structural collapse,” a firefighter told dispatchers.

The city never called for an excavation crew to scour the debris for victims.

“I know there were people in that house,” Collins told us, wiping tears from her cheeks.

Ladder 17, one of the busiest rigs, broke down at the scene of a fire.
Ladder 17, one of the busiest rigs, broke down at the scene of a fire.

Although Ladder 17 was unable to pump water in September 2014, it was sent to house fires where people were reportedly trapped, contributing to the injuries of at least three people in three separate runs.

Two months earlier, dispatchers were unable to send a rescue squad to a house fire where people were suspected of being trapped on the 13000 block of Chelsea on the east side. An inoperable ladder truck and a fire engine that was unable to pump water were sent, and firefighters stood no chance of making a rescue.

“There’s supposed to be a guy in this house,” a firefighter radioed in to dispatch.

The house collapsed, and the city demolished it without looking for human remains. The fire also damaged a neighboring occupied house.

Ladder 8, one of the city’s busiest companies and the truck responsible for responding to Marathon Oil fires, missed at least 10 runs because the rig wouldn’t start at quarters since January 2014. Even though the aerial ladder was inoperable for most of that time, it was sent to hundreds of fires in houses, apartment buildings, schools, churches and commercial buildings. The rig continued to operate while leaking hydraulic fluid and malfunctioning at scenes.

Ladder 20, which protects downtown, Midtown and the Cass Corridor, has no working aerial but is still sent to reported fires in high-rise apartments, hotels and office buildings. On May 29, Ladder 20 was sent to an occupied apartment in the Cass Corridor and found the second and third floor raging with flames. Firefighters stood no chance without an aerial attack, so the chief called for a second-alarm and two more ladder trucks. One person was injured.

Ladder 20, which has been using replacement rigs for years, broke down after a fire.
Ladder 20, which has been using replacement rigs for years, broke down after a fire.

When Ladder 20’s tie rod snapped on the way back from a fire last year, the rig wasn’t replaced with another ladder truck. Instead, firefighters were given TAC2, a tiny rig designed to extinguish trash and car fires.

That didn’t stop dispatchers from sending TAC2 alone to reported fires at the Michigan Science Center in Midtown or an occupied apartment building in the Cass Corridor, even though it contributed to the death of a little girl in 2011.

Without enough replacement rigs, TAC2 has been used by more than a dozen fire companies whose engines or ladder trucks were inoperable. During the past 18 months, dispatchers sent the small truck alone to reported fires in high-rise apartments and condos along the riverfront on East Jefferson, even though it’s incapable of extinguishing large fires or pumping water to upper levels.

When the city runs out of rigs, firefighters are either sent home or are left to sit in their quarters with no way to respond to fires, leaving sections of Detroit without immediate protection.

That was the case in September 2014, when 16 rigs broke down in one week, leaving firefighters scrambling for help and contributing to significant damage to neighborhoods struggling to survive. At 2 a.m. on Sept. 6, Chief 5 pleaded with dispatchers to send more help as a blaze ripped through a multiple-family home.

“I have two occupied houses going,” the chief radioed in. “I’m going to have a bunch of houses going here. I’ve got embers everywhere. I need my engines here on the scene.”

Some rigs took more than 25 minutes to respond, about six times the national standard.

“I lost everything,” Juan Martinez said the next day, picking through the charred remains for any salvageable memories. “My heart is broken.”

Fire spread to three houses on the east side because of defective rigs.
Fire spread to three houses on the east side because of defective rigs.

As a serial arsonist torched dozens of houses and apartment buildings just east of the Palmer Park Golf Course last year, the Fire Department continued to rely on Ladder 18, even though it had a host of maintenance problems and a nonworking aerial.

During a six-month period beginning Sept. 1, 2014, Ladder 18 was sent to more than 125 working fires in houses and apartments, about a third of them occupied. Without the ability to attack flames from above, the fires often spread and forced firefighters to call on distant working aerials, causing significant damage to neighborhoods just east of Woodward between 6 and 7 Mile.

When Ladder 18 broke down on 7 Mile at Myers on March 6, firefighters called for a tow truck. But 12 minutes later, the rig started, and firefighters went back in service and continued to respond to fires because the next closest ladder company, #17, was riddled with maintenance problems and even caught on fire.

“We’re returning back to quarters,” a firefighter from Ladder 18 told dispatchers. “We’re back in service.”

Incompetent mechanics

fire repair shop
The repair shop at the Eastern Market.

The task of fixing the failing fleet of rigs belongs to a maintenance crew that has been cut in half over the past four years.

Many of the mechanics lack formal training and are forced to learn on the job. It’s not even clear if the mechanics are certified to perform routine maintenance because the city was unable to provide the records to auditors last year, as required by law.

Consultants expressed shock by what they described as complacent, incompetent mechanics whose work is unreliable and shoddy.

“There is an unacceptable lack of activity in the shop,” Tri-Data wrote, adding that repairs “are either put off again and again, or never addressed at all” because of a “palpable sense of low morale and disincentive from some personnel, which may be attributed to years of operational dysfunction.”

The remains of a fire engine.
The remains of a fire engine.

In charge of the fleet is Second Deputy Commissioner Craig Dougherty, who has ignored national standards by failing to ensure mechanics are qualified and that hoses, aerial ladders and pumps are tested annually. Consultants said the top brass also has failed to hold mechanics accountable and know very little about how rigs operate.

“We also became aware of acts of total disregard for procedures, safety practices and operator neglect, which in many cases was covered up, not reported in a timely manner, and not properly disciplined,” Tri-Data concluded.

The shop is so poorly managed that it often lacks basic parts and fails to keep proper records of repairs.

Last month, Engine 56’s crew was driving their rig from the shop after the alternator had been replaced when a loose fan spun off and ripped a hole in the radiator. Mechanics neglected to tighten all of the parts, and Engine 56 was stuck alongside the road for the second time in three days in need of a tow.

But it was stranded because the city’s tow truck broke down.

As part of a restructuring loan in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy, the fire department received $1.8 million last year to begin making repairs that should have been made years ago.

The rigs were a mess, and most needed dozens of repairs, from new engines to transmissions.

When Squad 4 was towed to Napa Auto Parts late last year, the mechanics found parts bound together with zip ties, and the engine was covered in sludge from long-neglected oil leaks. Numerous repairs were needed, many of which were avoidable with preventable maintenance.

“There are major oil leaks all throughout the engine,” the Napa mechanic noted on an invoice that ballooned to more than $50,000 in October 2014. The squad received a new engine block after just 113,000 miles, a fraction of the life-expectancy of a well-maintained unit.

Squad 1 is towed to the city's repair shop in the Eastern Market.
Squad 1 is towed to the city’s repair shop in the Eastern Market.

Ladder 6 was in such bad shape that it was considered a hazard and needed about 25 repairs or replacements. The rig was unstable because the city’s mechanics “bypassed” safety features, the private mechanic warned on maintenance records. The rig also lacked basic safety features such as a horn and emergency lights.

Despite the work, which cost $64,500, firefighters were still unable to use the aerial ladder because it has been unable to pass inspections.

“We’re about 40 years behind in technology, equipment and training,” Executive Commissioner Jenkins said during a bankruptcy deposition.

But in e-mails to Motor City Muckraker, the commissioner downplayed the problems, saying the Fire Department is on its way solving the problems with its fleet.

“The challenges of our fleet today are the result of many years of a lack of investment in new apparatus and the lack of a routine maintenance program,” Jenkins said. “We are investing significantly in new apparatus and have an excellent routine maintenance program. As the new apparatus arrives over time, these fleet issues will begin to go away.”

The city declined to back up those claims with records, and rigs are still breaking down at an unprecedented rate.

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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.

  • Donald E. Hodge

    Steve, do you think the larger news outlets, ie the Detroit News, Free Press are not getting involved with this story because their bosses told them to back off? I mean where the hell is Charlie Leduff in all this! His book on Detroit was truly amazing! your going to tell me now he does not want to say anything. that is to painful to consider.

  • Donald E. Hodge

    Hay Steve. How about a sneak peak about what`s coming up. I can`t wait till Friday Brother!

  • Donald E. Hodge

    Please make sure that all of you read The City`s answer to Steve`s story so far. It could be titled ” Welcome to Fantasyland “.

  • Eric West

    A problem that has been around for years. The same with the broken fire hydrants. The mainstream media outlets won’t report on it and nobody wants to hold those in power accountable.

    • Mike C

      But when you report on where the broken hydrants are, is lets arsonists know where to go.

      • Perhaps you report on them, between 1-5 at a time, and set up plainclothes officers to arrest anyone on the property. Sounds too much like a movie sting, but who knows. No matter what, as long as arsonists are out there houses will continue to burn.

        • Mike C

          That would be a great start. While broken hydrants are a huge issue, the bigger problem is the arsonists.

  • Donald E. Hodge

    Steve, Thank you and all your efforts in bring the truth into the light. I am a big fan of it. Once again the people that run the city tend to be the most dishonest people you would ever meet. How do you not love and take care of your/our Firemen! and why are there not more people as pissed as I am about it. this can not continue. As a former Paramedic this is beyond insane. I can`t wait to read more of your stories on this matter. thanks again Brother. We will talk again.

  • It’s hard to put a finger on the most shocking of revelations here. I think that the most disturbing, though, is that there are truck companies operating without aerials in areas where there are more than a few multi-story buildings (e.g. apartments).

    That’s the sort of failure that sets us up for a major incident in the event of a fire in one of these types of buildings. The city shouldn’t wait for an incident that kills 50 or more people before they decide to perform an overhaul.

    • AH

      I’m sure if that sad thing ever happens the city officials responsible for the FD’s equipment will certainly find themselves with no less than a major money lawsuit but maybe this time some criminal charges for willfully allowing the FD to deterioate to such a level. Maybe when they start facing jail time things will change. Unfortunetly it may take a high loss life event to do it. Pretty low life, big money makers can’t do their job.

  • Curtis Golson

    Not to mention they have the FF’s doing medical runs with these same broken down vehicles. Lets put more miles on these already run in the ground rigs, just to say that EMS response time is down.

    The problem with that, is the transport time is the same or higher. So we stop the clock but still wait on a EMS unit to transport.

    Also, they want FF’s to have all this training in order to get promoted including an associate degree to become a Batt. Chief, but very few if any of them in the adminstration have the credentials they are requiring us to have.

  • bebow

    Let’s leave 50% of the 80,000 vacant, abandoned, stripped, blighted, worthless hulks standing in the unpoliced neighborhoods. If the properties burn with people inside, we’ll just cover our ears to muffle the screams, and step off afterwards like nothing happened. F’ing animals run this city.

    • Klann Killa

      Very accurate description. ??

      • bebow

        Killa, I had to edit myself. There are no decent words to address the decisions and behavior happening here, especially where the dead people are concerned. Who decides to leave the bodies in the rubble?

        • Klann Killa

          The suits downtown decide, They ALWAYS know what’s best for us. They shit on us every chance they get, but the citizens are REALLY getting shafted. I’ve been a part of this machine for twenty years, boots on the ground the whole time. The suits came through and gutted this department, it’s a daily crap shoot. I could go on,and, on, but I don’t have that kind of time on my hands. Morale IS down, but I can assure you, selected neighborhood or not, those responding on those raggedy rigs are the BEST at what we do, and are going to do all we can to protect your life and property. When that bell goes off all politics are left at the engine house, we take care of each other. Hopefully if enough light is shed on these issues, we can get some incompetent heads to roll downtown. Peace ✌?️

          • Donald E. Hodge

            Dear KK are you out there man? I need to talk about this. It shoulds like your a Firemen?

          • Klann Killa

            That is correct.

          • Donald E. Hodge

            Detdon@comcast.net I would Love to talk man, hit me up on my mail so we chat. Later.

          • Klann Killa

            Yep, yep

        • javierjuanmanuel


  • AH

    Had to add to this. After reading the story it sounds like it’s just a matter of time before these so called administrators find themselves and the city in court for willful disrgard for the safety of Fire Fighters and Citizens in a major wrongful death suit. It’s nice these jerks make all this big money and can’t do their job. We don’t spell this Corruption do we ????

  • AH

    I’m a little confused here and certainly concerned about the Detroit FF’s and the work they do to save lives and property even though to many rouge citizens think it’s fun to burn stuff down without regard to other peoples property or emergency workers who have to deal with this crap. I’m very surprised that this dangerous rig problem hasn’t been an issue for OSHA, as certainly those in charge in Detroit could care less. Time for this to stop and some serious action taken before FF’s start loseing their lives because of this unsafe equipment.

    • muckraker_steve

      Great point. We are working on a follow-up story about the lack of oversight. There essentially is more oversight over a vending machine than a fire engine.