Detroit runs out of firefighters during destructive night on east side

A fire flattened a house on Cutler and damaged two occupied homes. All photos by Steve Neavling.
A fire flattened a house on Cutler and damaged two occupied homes. Photo by Steve Neavling.

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.

Four separate house fires broke out on the east side.
Four separate house fires broke out on the east side.

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.”

Kenneth Kirby's home was damaged when fire flattened his neighbor's house.
Kenneth Kirby’s home was damaged when fire flattened his neighbor’s house. Photo by Steve Neavling.

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.

The fire on Cutler was so large that it melted the siding on a house across the street.
The fire on Cutler was so large that it melted the siding on a house across the street.

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.

This occupied house at 1376 Manistique was gutted.
This occupied house at 1376 Manistique was gutted. Photo by Steve Neavling.

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.

Related: Our 18-month investigation into Detroit’s dangerously defective rigs

“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

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.

  • banmar

    Thought this article had an interesting parallel to Detroit’s equipment needs. Apparently, in emergency vehicles, seat belts are included by the manufacturer to be used to hold a vehicle together 20 years down the line, not to provide safety to first responders.

  • Retired mamma.

    Once the arsonists finish with Detroit they will be moving on to other areas. Stop burning the city.

  • slovakD

    Time for the Mayor and Governor to petition Washington to declare Detroit a national disaster area, on par or worse than New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or a international disaster similar to Europe and Japan after WWII. Need missionaries here too, like those who worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. City is beyond bankrupt. Heaven help us.

  • Southside773

    I’m praying for Detroit. What the citizens there go through is unnecessary and terrifying. I have family there and I worry about them all the time. If you can’t depend on public life saving services when you need them, what else can you do ?

  • marvrein

    sounds like same o same burn the black people out of Detroit.

  • Mikey Jones

    Oh but sir! Wasn’t it just last week when both the mayor and the fire chief assured us that DFD was in better shape than even EVER?! You must be seeing something that isn’t there! The firefighters were probably too busy talking to the press to put the fires out………or something. What a shame!

    • javierjuanmanuel

      ha, I did not see that quote, but better than ever seems like a stretch, we were flush with cash, and one of the nicest big cities in the west post war well into the late 60s, early 70s.

      There is no way 1959 detroit had anything resembling the rag tag pile of turd equipment, and over run stadd we have today.

  • shavers313

    I think we all know deep down inside that people are going to have to move out of the city or move close to denser areas in order for the city to provide adequate city services.

    • bebow

      Density is overrated. The slumlords’ rental shacks need to go.

    • slovakD

      The only densely populated area south of 8 Mile in Northeast Detroit is Hamtramck 48212(not a part of Detroit, different fire dept..But people are moving, moving to neighboring Warren, Hazel Park, Madison Heights,Centerline, and Eastpointe. Expect Detroit’s population to be a loss of another 250,000 residents in 2020, down to 450,000 from 700,000(It was near one million in 2000.)

    • javierjuanmanuel

      That would seem like the only way, if you did not bother to look in almost any other direction.

      How did they city provide services when it was growing, they did not deny growing neighborhoods in the 1920-1950s service.

      Look to outlaying burbs like say armada, romeo, marine city, algonac, lapeer, pick any town.

      They always had services. Schools, fire, and roads.
      Not pipes for city water in all places, Ill grant that.

  • bebow

    Duggie has no sense of urgency for anything outside of downtown and Midtown. He should have demolition crews rolling through the neighborhoods knocking flat everything that’s foreclosed, and then the fire fighters could all take big naps. There is no benefit in leaving these properties standing, because they do nothing but subtract from the equation. This is an emergency.

  • Lady Lydia

    The poor leadership in Detroit is affecting us in Hamtramck. Why wasn’t a fire department closer called to assist rather than leaving Hamtramck unprotected? Mayor Karen and city council better do something fast to make sure the city stays protected.

  • Jimmy Peters

    yet Ilitch has managed to steal $2.8 billion for stadiums and arenas and all kinds of other bullshit. People die and homes and buildings are lost because of that greedy cheating, thieving bastard

    • javierjuanmanuel

      Not being charged for something is not stealing. Bad deal for the city, but not theft.

      Is it theft to call in sick every third day when you work for the city of detroit?

      How about paying below average people, above average wages, letting them retire young, get a pension, rehire in again to a cake job, work a few years, and get a second pension? Times THOUSANDS of people.

      They let illitch of the hook the same way they have all sorts of programs for artists, for minority business.

      Do you think the city paying 10-15% more on contracts if they have a vagina or dark skin is theft ?
      Mind you that might be double the net pay for the owner. DOUBLE!

      I have never seen anyone complain about it.

  • Curtis Golson

    Just wait until these companies start doing medical runs. What support are the Fire fighters going to get to help with battling fires, as we are helping bring the RESPONSE time (transport times are still the same or higher) down for EMS.

    • Squirtle

      They’d get help fighting fires if the fire department and their unions would approve of letting the paramedics on EMS who are also firefighter-certified to fight fires as well.

      This would also make the engines Advanced Life Support, rather than this glorified boy-scout medicine they call Medical First Responder.

      • Donald E. Hodge

        Are you saying that the training isn`t even EMT training?

        • Klann Killa

          Two types of training, EMT, and MFR. MF them both!!! What the “clowns downtown” don’t realize is after hiring approximately 200 or so “whiney little entitled educated brats”,(not knocking the educated part, that’s a good thing) they’re going to get tired of the bullshit politics, poor management etc., and realize their marketability. Having a DFD pedigree definitely is a plus country wide, so why would they stay here, get their asses kicked for the whole 24hrs doing BOTH fire and MFR runs for the lowest paid career FD in the country. Why not go somewhere and do a fraction of the work for TWICE the money? Definitely not talking quantum physics here. Before the new hirees, we were the oldest department in the country, the average age was 44.5 yrs old. That was by design. 44 years old, 15 years on the job, you are locked in and have to take whatever is crammed down your throat, hence EMT, MFR. Management is seriously flawed, they closed 5+ companies in 2012, but since then, they’ve taken on TWO cities in a mutual aid agreement. Two cities that can barely fend for themselves, let alone help us. The bubble IS going to burst, and it’s gonna be bad. Those responsible should be imprisoned.

        • Squirtle

          Correct. It is not even EMT training. The hierarchy of EMS training is as follows:

          1. Paramedic – Advanced Life Support
          2. EMT – Basic Life Support
          3. MFR

          • Donald E. Hodge

            Yeah,I know what the order of training is for Medics,I was just wondering how much Detroit cut courners .Emt training alone is two years. Paramedic two years. At least it was when I went through training.

          • Donald E. Hodge

            Mistake EMT Training one year. Paramedic two years.

  • butwhatdoiknow

    This is fucking pathetic. If there is a fire in Hamtramck and there’s no one to put it out because they’re all in Detroit then there will also be several murders to read about on this page as well.