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Detroit firefighters are regularly placed at risk because they’re forced to use outdated equipment that hasn’t been tested in years, violating state and federal safety laws.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