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.
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 lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.