This is part of our yearlong examination of the beleaguered Detroit Fire Department.
The east side of Detroit ran out of firefighters to respond to emergencies Monday morning, leaving entire neighborhoods without fire protection and forcing skeleton crews to battle blazes that spread to four occupied homes and contributed to the injury of a firefighter.
Separate fires broke out in four houses between 1:05 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., drawing all 60 firefighters from the east side. Some of the firefighters were hampered by defective rigs and fire hydrants.
Detroit also left Hamtramck without adequate fire protection by calling its neighbor’s fire crew to a house blaze that was 7 miles away, violating the pair’s 8-month-old pact that limits automatic mutual aid to a 1-mile radius of Hamtramck’s borders.
One of Detroit’s east-side fire companies, Ladder #14, was closed after firefighters reported black mold in their firehouse, and another two were temporarily shuttered because of budget cuts.
“This is no way to live,” Kenneth Kirby, 61, said as he removed melted siding from his house on the 9000 block of Cutler, where a vacant dwelling was flattened by flames that burned two occupied homes. “All you can do is pray. There’s nothing else you can do.”
The vacant house near Kirby’s home was still smoking 10 hours after the fire, shrouding the neighborhood in an acrid haze. A dead, hollow tree spewed out smoke like a chimney.
Just a few blocks away at 8840 Goethe, the first fire broke out in a vacant house that was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived, scorching an occupied home. Ladder #14 was just six blocks away but the fire administration closed the crew’s station after they reported black mold in their firehouse.
About 10 minutes later, firefighters spotted another house ablaze a few blocks away on the 9000 block of Cutler where Kirby lives. Because firefighters came from a longer distance, the flames consumed the house and melted the siding off of an occupied home across the street and one next door. Trees also caught fire.
About 3 miles away, 911 received a call about a suspected arson at an occupied house at Manistique near E. Jefferson. Despite fears that people were trapped, the senior chief called off a west-side engine that was dispatched. The first fire engine arrived more than 10 minutes after the 911 call, more than twice the national standard and far too long to save anyone trapped inside. Squad #3, which is designed to make rescues, was delayed because their alarm either malfunctioned or dispatchers failed to properly notify them. A firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation, and the house was gutted.
At 2:30 a.m., the city couldn’t send a rescue squad to a suspicious house fire that “appeared to be occupied” on the 15000 block of Coram, the chief told dispatchers. After battling the Cutler fire for nearly 90 minutes, fatigued firefighters from Engine #52 were called to the Coram blaze, despite required breaks between runs. No rescue squads were available.
Neither Mayor Mike Duggan’s office nor Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins would comment for this story.
Had another fire broken out, Detroit would have been in serious trouble. Especially vulnerable were Indian Village, East English Village, Chandler Park, Jefferson Chalmers, Morningside and Ravendale, among others.
Although Detroit has led the country in arsons over the past three decades and averaged more than four times the number of fires as comparably sized cities, elected leaders continued to close fire stations and reduce the budget for rig repairs. In just the past four years, the city has closed 40% of the fire department’s companies.
“Those cuts significantly impact DFD’s ability to deliver an appropriate number of units in a timely manner,” Tri-Data, leading consultants in emergency services, wrote in a sharply critical report earlier this year.
“DFD is critically understaffed.”
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.