On the day that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration disputed our 18-month investigation into the city’s dangerously defective fire engines and ladder trucks, at least four rigs broke down.
Rigs with broken pumps and ladders also were sent to fires, causing flames to spread to occupied houses.
“The fleet of this fire department has never been in better condition than it is right now,” Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins told WXYZ-7 on July 31 in a segment featuring Motor City Muckraker’s investigation. “From February 2014 to today, the apparatus is up to snuff.”
The first fire on July 31 damaged or destroyed eight houses – most of them occupied – in southwest Detroit after a non-certified ladder truck was sent and a hydrant malfunctioned. The fire became so ferocious that it melted the siding on four houses across the street.
“It was horrifying,” Lucia Perez recalled. “I thought the whole block was going to burn down.”
That same day, crews for Engine 30 went through three rigs, including one that had spent four months in the repair shop and broke down on the day it was returned to firefighters.
Despite this, Mayor Duggan’s Office sent out a lengthy written response in an attempt to downplay problems with the fleet.
Last year, the city spent more than $6 million on 10 new engines. Only three are on the road, more than a month after all 10 were supposed to be in service. On July 31, the day the mayor’s office disputed our story, one of the new engines was sent back for “major component” problems, causing the manufacturer, Smeal, to scramble to determine whether the other rigs also are prone to mechanical failures.
The city’s insistence that the fleet is “up to snuff” is nothing new. An incriminating report by Tri-Data, a leading public safety consulting firm, concluded in March 2015 that the Fire Department fosters a “cover up culture” and has “profoundly weak management” with a fleet that “is in serious disrepair.”
Duggan’s office declined to say whether the mayor even read the Tri-Data report.
In the week since Duggan’s administration denied problems with the fleet, at least eight fire engines, ladder trucks and rescue squads malfunctioned en route to emergencies or on the scene, causing fires to burn longer and cause more damage. Dispatchers also sent numerous defective rigs to fires because so much of the fleet is malfunctioning.
In a three-hour period Thursday, Engine 58’s pump – the most critical piece of a fire rig – became defective, and Squad 3’s rig had steering problems. Instead of fixing Squad 3, firefighters were forced to continue using the rig, a federal violation.
After our investigation, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it plans to review the fleet problems.
“The agency is taking a close look at the information you have provided and intends to compare it with MIOSHA safety and health requirements,” MIOSHA spokeswoman Tanya Baker said.
Mayor Duggan’s administration declined to comment on the ongoing problems and barred all fire officials from speaking to us, even warning firefighters that they would be terminated for providing us with information.
In the past week, more than 65 houses and commercial buildings were destroyed or damaged by fires.
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.