Firefighters endangered by unsafe air tanks that violate state, federal laws

Firefighters have been relying on noncompliant air bottles. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Firefighters have been relying on noncompliant air bottles. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Detroit firefighters are regularly placed at risk because they’re forced to use outdated equipment that hasn’t been tested in years, violating state and federal safety laws.

Motor City Muckraker has found that firefighters rely on noncompliant hoses, engine pumps, air bottles, self-contained respirators, pressurized extinguishers and aerial and ground ladders. Many firefightes also have defective or deteriorating helmets, boots and coats.

Not only are the safety issues a hazard to firefighters; they also hamper their ability to extinguish fires and rescue residents.

Most recently, firefighters from one battalion discovered that half of their air bottles were noncompliant and prone to explosion because they haven’t been tested in five years, as required by state and federal safety laws. Today, the Fire Department discovered that 179 of the 420 air tanks were noncompliant.

The air bottles are necessary for firefighters to breathe inside smoke-filled houses and buildings.

“We have a crisis,” Sgt. William Harp of Engine 44 told me after filing a complaint with the Michigan Occupation Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA). “We are not supposed to have these bottles on the rig if they are noncompliant.”

Photo by Steve Neavling
Photo by Steve Neavling

Federal law requires the tanks to be hydrostatically tested for leaks or flaws in their casings because compressed gas can cause the tanks to explode.  

“DFD has pulled the bottles out of service, and they are currently being tested,” said Second Deputy Commissioner Craig Dougherty, who is in charge of ensuring the equipment is compliant. “We are also surveying the remaining companies for overdue bottles.”

Firefighters said Tuesday night that the air bottles haven’t been taken out of service, and no one has received orders on what to do, despite the serious risks. At several companies, including Engine 1, which protects downtown, there aren’t enough compliant air bottles for half of the firefighters.

Federal law prohibits the use of noncompliant air bottles.

The Fire Department, one of the busiest in the country, also failed to conduct proper fit testing for self-contained respirators.

Dougherty stopped answering our questions when asked about the untested hoses, pumps, ladders and pressurized extinguishers, leaving firefighters in the dark about their safety.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration said the Fire Department spent $2 million on 800 new air bottles that are expected to arrive by the end of the year. About 120 of them are due by the end of the month, said Duggan spokesman Dan Austin.

“This is another example of a long-standing problem in the Detroit Fire Department that is finally being fixed as we continue make sure our firefighters are adequately prepared,” Austin said.

Related: Detroit routinely sends dangerously defective rigs to fires.

The failure to test hoses, pumps and ladders has caused significant problems for firefighters.

Engine pumps, for example, are critical to getting water on a fire. Pumps have failed at the scenes of fires on at least eight engines in the past nine months, records show.

Hoses also break and leak because they haven’t been tested as required, and ground ladders are unsafe as firefighters rely on them to make rescues and crawl into burning houses.

Later this week we explore numerous safety issues with the city’s long-neglected ladder trucks.

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.

  • falseprophet

    The president does not follow federal laws and guidelines…so whhat is the story here.

  • james s

    As an aside, has anyone else noticed that the Deputy Commissioner shares a name with the other biggest flop in Detroit history?

    • Donald E. Hodge

      Poetic , is it not.

  • bebow

    So, I have questions about the air tanks. What makes air tanks faulty? Is it exposure to heat that causes explosion? Might they detonate under ordinary conditions? Has explosion happened in the past?

    • Klann Killa

      The bottles have about 2200lbs of compressed air forced into them. They should be hydrostaticly tested every 3-5 years. The test is to ensure structural integrity due to the rigors of filling, and depleting them on a daily basis. Factor in extreme heat (800-1500 degrees, extreme cold (Michigan winters), the occasional mishandling (dropping them), and bouncing around in their compartments in transit, they take a real beating. The bottles are wrapped in a fiberglass composite that eventually breaks down under normal conditions. About 10 years ago one exploded on Engine 33’s rig. It was in the cabin of the rig on a harness in service. The damaged that was caused was unreal, had that been on a person it would have torn him in half, closed casket. Maybe we can get Steve to go to Engine 33’s quarters (Lawndale@Layfaette), they have a framed picture of the air bottle, and the damage it caused to the rig, mind blowing. Peace✌?️

      • bebow

        Perhaps this is a stupid question, but are these oxygen (O2) tanks? Are they like medical or scuba air tanks? Any differences? Who does the refilling once the tanks are used? Considering the explosive potential, frequency of use, and rough handling, it would make better sense to check the tanks whenever they’re refilled. Yes, the public needs to know more about these air tanks and see what happens when they fail. A visual would be good.

        • Klann Killa

          Stupid people DON’T ask questions. The bottles contain ambient air under pressure, different from O2 bottles, same as scuba bottles. We are all trained to refill the bottles at specific stations that have cascade systems(refilling stations). We are also all trained to give visual inspections of scba bottles, and harnesses at the beginning of each shift change, ( your life is in that bottle) At the sign of any noticeable defect, the member will place the bottle out of service, and notify his/her company officer who would then run it up the chain of command. After that it’s in the administration’s lap, and we ALL know how they get down. I’ll try to get you a visual ASAP, it will literally blow you away( no pun…) Peace✌?️

  • Dean Henry

    This whole DFD situation is disgusting; the lack of Free Press or Det. News coverage is even more disgusting. Thank you Steve for getting in there and asking the right questions.

    • muckraker_steve

      Still surprised they haven’t touched these issues. People are dying because of the dysfunction, and firefighters are routinely placed at risk.

      • Donald E. Hodge

        Yes, Thank you again Steve, It is good to see a reporter out there that still has the guts of Edward R Murrow.

    • Donald E. Hodge

      Well just look at the reason Charle Leduff was fired by Detroit news. He was writing a story about crooked Judges in the city.I guess we don’t have to ask who really owns that paper.

  • disqus_vhLozcit3f

    As it relates to the air bottles, the Detroit Fire Fighters Association was kicking and screaming when the City wanted to upgrade to the new higher capacity tanks. Their intransigence stretched probably at least six months, that could have been six months earlier that frontline responders were able to utilize new, safer, modern equipment. Their beef with the tanks (which pretty much every other municipality in the country has adopted) was that because they last longer, they’re heavier.

    In many ways, the entire composition of the DFD is fundamentally flawed. Nowhere else in the City is there a similar dynamic. The entire upper echelon should be purged in its entirety, and the rank and file has been conditioned by years of incompetence and budget cuts to fundamentally mistrust management. Even though there’s more money flowing into the department, Edsel and Co. are doing a terrible job of spending it.

    • Donald E. Hodge

      It is because they are not real fire executives.They are the fill in guys….Ok who ever wants the job next just step up!

  • Curtis Golson

    Have you noticed the same name shows up time after time, as the person responsible for our safety equipment. And time after time, they have failed.

    • Donald E. Hodge

      I am Sorry Curtis. I would sell my soul to fix this for you guys. If i could.