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.
“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he’s confident he can win their approval by earnestly listening to their concerns and delivering on a pledge to replace outdated equipment, provide better training and clean up safety hazards in the firehouses.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.
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.”
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 lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.