Editorial: Mayor Duggan sets Fire Department on right track with outside-the-box appointment

Fire Commissioner Eric Jones, with his son and Mayor Mike Duggan at a press conference. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Fire Commissioner Eric Jones, with his son and Mayor Mike Duggan at a press conference. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Mayor Mike Duggan showed Wednesday that he is serious about revamping an embattled fire department that has neglected its firefighters and city residents for decades.

Instead of appointing someone within the department to take the helm, Duggan selected a former assistant police chief, Eric Jones, to replace Edsel Jenkins, as fire commissioner.

Some questioned the wisdom of placing one of the nation’s busiest fire departments in the hands of someone who has never fought a fire. But as the executive commissioner, Jones’ primary mission will be ensuring that long-neglected firefighters receive the equipment they need and the support they deserve.

Commissioner Eric Jones_9330“We have the best firefighters in the world. They know how to do their jobs,” Jones said, wearing a pin-striped suit and red tie at a firehouse on the west side. “I have to make sure they have everything they need to do their job.”

Jones, whose son is a new firefighter, met me for lunch at a coffee shop not far from the press conference where Mayor Duggan had announced the appointment. Jones was brimming with sincerity, intelligence and an infectious drive. He knows some firefighters may be wary of his appointment, but he’s confident he can win their approval by earnestly listening to their concerns and delivering on a pledge to replace outdated equipment, provide better training and clean up safety hazards in the firehouses.

“I want to be a part of the firefighting family,” Jones told me.

Fixing the Fire Department won’t be easy.

On the day of Eric Jones' appointment, firefighters were forced to let a house burn because of a lack of water pressure. Photo by Steve Neavling.
On the day of Eric Jones’ appointment, firefighters were forced to let a house burn because of a lack of water pressure. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Under Jenkins’ administration, firefighters were forced to rely on defective trucks and uncertified safety gear. Firefighters were harassed and their jobs threatened when management suspected they were leaking news about serious safety risks. Even the purchase of new rigs was mired in controversy.

Tri-Data, a group of public safety consultants, blasted the Fire Department earlier this year for “profoundly weak management and supervisory practices that are deeply ingrained into the fire department culture.”

The report continued: “There is not a coherent, consistent attempt by top managers to exercise reasonable accountability across the organization. For these reasons, the city should focus on improving command and control before making many needed and expensive fixes for facilities, vehicles, equipment, and staffing. These ingrained practices have undercut the fire department’s ability to foster accountability and critical thinking across the organization.”

As an outsider to the Fire Department, Jones brings a fresh set of eyes and a track record of solving problems and revamping troubled bureaucracies. After helping reduce crime within the Police Department, where he was a 25-year veteran, Jones was appointed by Duggan last year to lead the city’s troubled Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED).

“The most dysfunctional department in city government when I started without a doubt was the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department,” Duggan said. “We were driving businesses and jobs out of the city.”

Mayor Duggan
Mayor Duggan

Now, Duggan said, “There has not been a department that has turned around faster than BSEED. Morale is up and the inspectors are doing a good job. The men and women in the Fire Department deserve the most talented person in the administration.”

And that person, Duggan said, is Jones, who was a full-time police officer when he earned his undergraduate and then law degree from Wayne State University.

Jones now needs City Council’s approval to become the permanent executive commissioner.

In the meantime, as interim commissioner, Jones is meeting with firefighters at every firehouse. He plans to set an aggressive timetable to provide certified, up-to-date equipment to firefighters. And he wants to make sure firefighters know they won’t be disciplined for expressing concerns about safety problems and defective rigs.

“The firefighters deserve the best,” Jones said. “And I need to listen to their concerns.”

Beginning next month, Jones will begin evaluating the current fire administration to determine whether he needs to clean house. Firefighters almost unanimously agree that much of the remaining administration needs to go because they’ve failed to provide even adequate training and equipment.

They include deputy commissioners Craig Dougherty and John Berlin and Chief of Fire Operations John King.

Jones said it’s far too early to decide who stays and who leaves.

But, he said, “Change is coming.”

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.

  • bebow
  • Donald E. Hodge

    If Eric Jones does what he says he will do then the Fire Department should and will be firing on all eight soon enough. I as everyone else hopes that is the case. who knows maybe there could be a time in the future where Detroit could increase the Department by lets say 5 companies…………?………Maybe………Mr. Mayor……

    • notasdumbasulook

      Bunch of effing idiots that think that the commish can just go out and purchase everything. This isn’t the normal Joe blow going to Costco…. Most people have no clue the amount of political red tape there is to purchase a pencil for the city. They just got rid of the most honest commissioner they have had in decades! Good luck.

      • Donald E. Hodge

        Thank you Mr. 27 years. We all know that you didn’t leave the department in better shape as you found it did you. Stop coming to this venue to vomit up all your ” when Edsel and I were Firemen ” Bull shit! Nobody cares! You fucked that up already and what you left behind is all the detritus that the new commish has to clean up. You got that Chief Daugherty! Oh and your next on the termination bus.

        • notasdumbasulook

          You’re about to find out with the next commish! You’re a typical online punk. You don’t even know who you are talking to and you make irresponsible assumptions. I fight fires(always ran at a busy company), mop floors, painted my own engine house and sleep on my own mattress! Don’t vomit on me when you have no effin clue! People expect a first-class operation on a third world budget. In case it’s not perfectly clear to you, the state of Michigan could care less about the city of Detroit.

          • Donald E. Hodge

            Like I said don’t blame me because you choose to be a coward. You left the Detroit Fire Department,or will be leaving when You get sacked because you didn’t make a dent with the higher ups to stick up for your own men. Like most officers you covered your own ass.your issues are in the mirror, not with me.

          • notasdumbasulook

            Coward? LOL People have referred to me as crazy, but never a coward. I guess it’s good to be well rounded.

          • Donald E. Hodge

            Only you would know that.

          • javierjuanmanuel

            based on what, who has gotten more press, more aid, more grants, and more people feeling sorry for them over the last 30 years ?

            Now if you said flint, saginaw, highland park, or river rouge … ok then, maybe the state and everyone acts like they are all dead ghost towns.

            Detroit is a cause celeb for many. Hundreds of white people from the burbs for 30 years, for dozens of projects go and clean up parks, rivers, paint stuff, board up houses, do all sorts of charity from coats for kids, to making sure the dogs have a dog house and hay.

            No one elses butt get wiped more by a third party than detroit.

  • Dean Henry

    Sounds like a much needed breath of energized fresh air.

  • bebow

    He enters with the correct attitude, and that’s a good part of the problem solved.