Bureaucratic delays prevent purchase of desperately needed fire trucks in Detroit

Detroit’s aerial ladder trucks are so unreliable and prone to mechanical failures that they broke down at least 55 times last year en route to a fire or at the scene, causing flames to spread and burn longer.

Detroit’s ladder trucks are critical for rescues and extinguishing large fires from above, but they are the oldest and most neglected among the Fire Department’s fleet, which includes engines and squads.  

The fleet problems continued this week when Ladder 6 was damaged in a car crash, causing it to be placed out of service for at least a month.

Ladder 17, one of the busiest rigs, broke down at the scene of a fire.
Ladder 17, one of the busiest rigs, broke down at the scene of a fire.

As the problems continue this year, placing lives and property at risk, the purchase of new aerial ladder trucks has become entangled in bureaucratic delays. The Fire Department has been ready to seek bids for four new ladder trucks and six new squads since February, but the Finance Department and a new steering committee created by Mayor Mike Duggan have tied up the purchase.

It will take more than a year before the desperately needed ladder trucks and squads are delivered because of additional bureaucratic hurdles, the bidding process and the time it takes to build the rigs.

“It’s ridiculous. We simply don’t have enough rigs to cover the city,” said Mike Nevin, president of the Detroit Fire Firefighters Association. “The hangup is city hall, not the fire department. We’re trying to turn this department around, but we aren’t getting what we’ve been budgeted.”

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Mayor Duggan’s office plans to respond to this story today.

“All we are waiting for is clearance from the steering committee,” Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell said.

He added: “At this time, the committee is accelerating their approval of the process.”

Climbing an aerial ladder.
Climbing an aerial ladder.

Firefighters are tired of waiting because they know lives and property are on the line. In April 2000, four people died and a 7-year-old girl was paralyzed after an aerial ladder failed to raise to rescue people from the burning Pallister Plaissance Apartments in Detroit.

Ladder trucks are the main defense when a fire begins to rip through a roof. Without a working ladder, flames can easily spread to neighboring structures. Ladder trucks also are critical for high-rise fires.

Firefighters have lost control of fires that spread to two or more houses because of ladder failures. At least two ladder trucks caught fire last year.

On most days, the city has 13 ladder trucks in service, compared to 22 in 2006. The trucks are between 13 and 16 years old, and two have accumulated more than 100,000 miles.

Until about two year ago, the city failed to perform routine maintenance on the fleet, causing significant mechanical problems, according to TriData, a national public safety consulting firm, which analyzed the Fire Department during the bankruptcy.

Ladder 31 gets towed away.
Ladder 31 gets towed away.

“There is an unacceptable lack of activity in the shop,” Tri-Data wrote, adding that repairs “are either put off again and again, or never addressed at all” because of a “palpable sense of low morale and disincentive from some personnel, which may be attributed to years of operational dysfunction.”

The good news is, the city has increased the speed of repairs, is performing preventative maintenance and has certified 12 of the 13 frontline aerial ladders since Eric Jones became fire commissioner in October, Fornell said.

“We’re working very hard to make sure we have enough ladders in service that are certified,” Fornell said.

The city will be put to the test on July 4, which has had more fires in the past two years than Devil’s Night.

Fire repair shop.
Fire repair shop.

Since Duggan replaced Jones with former Commissioner Edsel Jenkins, firefighters say the department has vastly improved. But with a problematic, aging fleet of squads and ladder trucks that was inherited by the new fire administration, firefighters are worried this could be the worst year yet for mechanical failures.

“Eric Jones is the best commissioner we’ve had, but he’s handcuffed by city hall,” Nevin said.

The fire department was given up to $18 million for new rigs from a $200 million bankruptcy loan. The department received 10 new engines last year and is expected to receive additional engines next month.

Join us at 2 p.m. Thursday on Facebook for a live conversation with Nevin about the challenges still facing firefighters.

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

    At this point I think we would be better off if The city just let Eric Jones and his chiefs let the Fire truck builders put their bids into the city council and lets get this going. The Firemen of Detroit and the people that live here have needed these trucks for some time now. Lets get this Done! less screwing around here. At this time I think Eric has done a great job. Perhaps a little more trust can help them get the ball rolling.

  • Donald E. Hodge

    At this point I think we would be better off if The city just let Eric Jones and his chiefs let the Fire truck builders put their bids into the city council and lets get this going. The Firemen of Detroit and the people that live here have needed these trucks for some time now. Lets get this Done! less screwing around here. At this time I think Eric has done a great job. Perhaps a little more trust can help them get the ball rolling.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      How hard can it be? What could we possibly need any different than any other big city in a northern climate.

      What ever chicago, cleveland, Cincinnati, indy, Milwaukee etc use thats fine.

      They seem fine with busted azz POS, and dream about the perfect machine. This would be like your coworker riding the bus everyday, show up late, have a million dollars saved up for a car, but they cannot decide if they want a v12 twin turbo benz, a Maserati, v12 bmw, audi s8.

      They continue to ride the bus the next two years

    • javierjuanmanuel

      How hard can it be? What could we possibly need any different than any other big city in a northern climate.

      What ever chicago, cleveland, Cincinnati, indy, Milwaukee etc use thats fine.

      They seem fine with busted azz POS, and dream about the perfect machine. This would be like your coworker riding the bus everyday, show up late, have a million dollars saved up for a car, but they cannot decide if they want a v12 twin turbo benz, a Maserati, v12 bmw, audi s8.

      They continue to ride the bus the next two years

      • Donald E. Hodge

        They go right out of their way to make it as hard as possible on these guys.It is beyond Bull Shit.

  • kathy

    Was it require from the bankruptcy case that Duggan must appoint a steering committee to approve the city of Detroit big ticket items? This is costing the city of Detroit taxpayers more monies to appoint and pay the steering committee if not require by the bankruptcy case. Duggan does not need to waste the city of Detroit taxpayers monies and time for needed city government services when people lives and property are on fire. The City of Detroit taxpayers pay their taxes on time or are penalize. They want the prompt city of Detroit service which means promptly process the needed fire trucks and other supplies/equipment to address home and business fires. The City of Detroit cannot become a Renaissance City with bureaucracy in City hall.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      “This is costing the city of Detroit taxpayers more monies to appoint and
      pay the steering committee if not require by the bankruptcy case”

      Percentage of total spending matters, then you need to compare how much they make, vs overpaying ten percent across the board.

      I cannot believe people are this short sighted. Of course its not free, but you just need 5 people working part time for 40k, or even 80k, and they can save tens of millions every year easy.

      No they do not pay taxes on time or are penalized, I think the most recent numbers are years behind, that only have the city payed property taxes in 2012, and you might notice, no where near half the city has been kicked out of their home, even many years later.

      Same with water bills, you could just not pay your water bill, and receive free water for ten years or more.

      I know of places that paid managers to take their card out of the file system in the 60s or 70sand did not receive a water bill ever, you no longer existed, and people got free water well into the early 90s.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      “This is costing the city of Detroit taxpayers more monies to appoint and
      pay the steering committee if not require by the bankruptcy case”

      Percentage of total spending matters, then you need to compare how much they make, vs overpaying ten percent across the board.

      I cannot believe people are this short sighted. Of course its not free, but you just need 5 people working part time for 40k, or even 80k, and they can save tens of millions every year easy.

      No they do not pay taxes on time or are penalized, I think the most recent numbers are years behind, that only have the city payed property taxes in 2012, and you might notice, no where near half the city has been kicked out of their home, even many years later.

      Same with water bills, you could just not pay your water bill, and receive free water for ten years or more.

      I know of places that paid managers to take their card out of the file system in the 60s or 70sand did not receive a water bill ever, you no longer existed, and people got free water well into the early 90s.

  • Larry Dibble

    I am not from Detroit so I really have no right to say anything about this issue but here are a few thoughts anyway. It appears the City is willfully placing the citizens and firefighters of Detroit in danger. It is not like Detroit does not have any fires and rescues. A declared emergency would seem to bypass this bottleneck of people that don’t seem to care much about the citizens and firefighters of Detroit. Just a thought…

    • Donald E. Hodge

      At This point Larry, that might be all we have left.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      If you pay taxes, detroit gets money from the federal government, and the state.

      This is about unions, and positions of power, demonstrating they are the power broker.