A 71-year-old man with disabilities died in a house blaze Tuesday afternoon in what may have been an avoidable fatality.
This afternoon, two friends of Tom Clark, who was overcome by smoke and couldn’t be resuscitated, stood on the porch of his house with heavy hearts and some anger. They wondered whether their lifelong buddy would still be alive if the administration of Mayor Bing hadn’t closed a fire station, Engine 38, less than a mile away as part of massive budget cuts.
Instead of a 4-minute ride to the burning house, firefighters at the next closest station, Engine 52, were more than 10 minutes away. The national standard for response times in cities is 4 minutes and 2 seconds, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Even Grosse Pointe had a closer station to Clark’s house.
“I understand the city is broke, but you have to provide basic services,” his friend, Ed Brown, told me.”This didn’t have to happen. Not like this.”
At least five people with disabilities have died in fires since Mayor Dave Bing closed up to 15 stations last year, said Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Firefighters Association. Many more are closed for days at a time. With fewer firefighters and stations, houses are burning for longer and spreading before help arrives.
The poor response times have prompted the fire department to file suit against the city.
“We are handicapped when our leaders ignore the realities that we see every day on the streets of Detroit,” McNamara said. “Public Safety cannot be ignored or compromised. It cannot be measured by income levels or political pull. Public Safety is about everyone in our community receiving equal protection. When leaders compromise the residents they are to protect and represent, the whole system fails.”
Tuesday’s fire appears to have started around 8 p.m. on the second floor, where Clark slept and kept stacks of newspapers and other combustibles. The fire was contained to the second floor, where Clark was found unresponsive.
“He would move very, very slowly,” Brown said. “One step at a time. Or sometimes a half of a foot.”
Clark also used a wheelchair.
Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
“If we were there just a little sooner, I think he would be alive today,” a firefighter told me on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisal. “The fire wasn’t burning for long.”
Neither Bing’s office nor the fire department returned my calls.
The crisis in the fire department is not only endangering lives. Home insurance has skyrocketed in the city and is unaffordable for tens of thousands of residents because of poor emergency services.
Karen Dumas, a former radio show host and appointee of Bing, recently scoffed at the increasing rates.
“Just learned that our homeowner’s insurance increased by nearly $2,000,” Dumas posted on Facebook. “The agent said all insurance companies are adjusting (increasing)their rates in Detroit (already one of if not the highest in the country) as a result of compromised city services, especially fire and police and the increased risk as a result. And, the solution is?”
Unfortunately, officials said, residents will continue to flee because of unaffordable insurance rates and taxes in a city that provides abysmal services.
“It is upsetting that our message is being ignored by the Detroit Fire Department, the city administration and much of the media,” McNamara said. “I know it is not a nice fluffy story but it is about the real life for residents, taxpayers and Fire Fighters of Detroit.”
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.