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.