Some firefighters without air bottles after major safety lapse discovered

Detroit firefighters at a recent fire on the west side. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Detroit firefighters at a recent fire on the west side. Photo by Steve Neavling.

When firefighters dash into burning houses and buildings to rescue people and knock down fires, they wear high-pressure air bottles to breathe.

But beginning Tuesday, there weren’t enough life-saving air bottles for each Detroit firefighter to use following the discovery that 173 of the 420 tanks were overdue to be tested in violation of state and federal safety laws.

As required by law, the city removed the uncertified air bottles after Motor City Muckraker revealed the serious and potentially criminal violations Tuesday.

Untested air bottles are dangerous because they can malfunction while firefighters are deep inside a smoke-filled house or building, and the high-pressured canisters can explode.

Second Deputy Commissioner Craig Dougherty, who is in charge of ensuring the equipment is compliant, lied to Mayor Mike Duggan’s office about the severity of the problem, saying only 31 tanks were noncompliant. Since then, Duggan’s office has closely monitored the Fire Department’s handling of the noncompliant tanks.

Duggan spokesman Dan Austin said the city delivered 21 re-certified air bottles to firefighters on Wednesday evening. Firefighters usually have two tanks – one as a backup when air runs out.

Neither Dougherty nor Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins responded to requests for interviews, and many firefighters expressed frustration that they were kept in the dark about such serious safety issues.

The Fire Department is violating other safety laws and standards by forcing firefighters to rely on untested ground and aerial ladders, engine pumps, pressurized extinguishers, breathing masks and air compressors.

Firefighters said they continue to be harassed and threatened by the fire administration for blowing the whistle on safety violations. On Wednesday, some firefighters said they were threatened – again – by Chief of Fire Operations John King for expressing concerns about the safety issues.

Related: Fire official sends arrogant, grammatically challenged letter to firefighters

Firefighter William Harp filed a complaint about the air bottles with the Michigan Occupation Safety and Health Administration, which is prohibited from discussing potential future investigations.

The Fire Department plans to re-certify more than 30 air bottles a day. On Oct. 16, the Fire Department will begin receiving new air tanks that were ordered earlier this year.

“Help is on the way,” Duggan spokesman Dan Austin said.


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.

  • Donald E. Hodge

    We are now on the door step.Potentially the death of a Detroit Firefighter could possibly show its ugly and soul wrenching face. My God, Air Bottles…..Really! Here it is uncle Sam. Federal laws have been broken. The Eastern district of the U.S.Attorney`s office should have the FBI looking into this by now but perhaps not the type of people haven`t died yet. I hate to think on these terms but what do i have left to contemplate. Craig Dougherty, Did you really want to be a chief to the point where you became a liar? how could you do that to your own men? you slimy walrus POS! How wrong I was about you. I feel nothing but shame for backing you.

  • Curtis Golson

    Help is always on the way. That’s the City’s response every time an issue is uncovered. But, in the meantime we are forced to operate without the necessary equipment to do the job..

    • banmar

      Where the hell is help coming from, the slow boat from China? It’s just unbelievable.

  • Klann Killa

    Off with Craig’s head!!!?

    • Donald E. Hodge

      KK, was Engine 33 on a run when the tank blew ?

      • Klann Killa

        No, but they returned from a fire a couple of hours earlier. The Boye were sleeping. It happened about 4:00a.m. They said it rocked the engine house like a bomb went off.

        • Donald E. Hodge

          Thank God it happened that way and not on a call.could not even imagine that blowing on the back of a firemen.Thanks for the info.

      • notasdumbasulook

        A rig ran that bottle over. It blew a few hours later.