New Detroit fire commissioner protects whistleblower from punishment

Without water pressure, Detroit firefighters could do little but watch a house burn down on the east side. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Without water pressure, Detroit firefighters could do little but watch a house burn down on the east side last week. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Detroit firefighter William Harp was harassed and intimidated for months after launching complaints that the fire administration was violating state and federal safety laws by forcing firefighters to rely on dangerous, outdated equipment and asbestos-riddled firehouses.

On Friday, the last day of Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins’ career with the Fire Department, his administration filed three charges against Harp and recommended his termination.

His charges? Discrediting the Fire Department by “deliberately and maliciously” making statements to the media “to mislead and create fear in both citizens and other Fire Department personnel.”

What Harp actually did was bring attention to the fact that firefighters were forced to use uncertified air bottles in violation of state and federal safety laws. As a result, the city took the air bottles out of service and quickly tested them before returning the ones that passed inspections, making firefighters safer.

When new Executive Commissioner Eric Jones heard about the charges against Harp on Friday, he quickly ordered them to be rescinded, an early indication that he won’t tolerate the climate of intimidation and fear that was allowed to fester in the past administration.

Among Jones’ many challenges is restoring morale among firefighters who have been threatened and harassed. Some of those officials –deputy commissioners Craig Dougherty and John Berlin and Chief of Fire Operations John King – are still on the job.

But next month, Jones is expected to begin building a new administration.

“We plan to have an administration that supports the firefighters and the EMTs,” Jones said last week at a press conference announcing his appointment. “In November, there’s going to be an evaluation process” for choosing the next administration. “We need to look at a merit-based system.”

Jones is a former assistant police chief who was appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan last year to lead the city’s troubled Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED).

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

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.