Firefighters retaliated against for blowing whistle on serious safety issues

All photos by Steve Neavling
All photos by Steve Neavling.

The city of Detroit is disciplining and threatening firefighters for expressing concerns about public safety and dangerously defective rigs, a violation of whistleblower protection laws.

At least one firefighter has been disciplined after contacting the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MiOSHA) about dangerous firehouse conditions, and the city last week removed a new fire engine in retaliation for firefighters alerting the top brass about problems with the rig.

Firefighters believed to have alerted Motor City Muckraker to safety issues also have been threatened and intimidated, and Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration has barred all fire officials from speaking to us, impeding our 18-month investigation to uncover grave problems.

First UnitarianLast week, John King, chief of fire operations, waltzed into Engine 52’s quarters wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants and ordered firefighters to stand at attention and salute him. He was livid that firefighter Michael O’Lear wrote him a letter – signed by his superiors – about an ear-piercing alarm that made it impossible to hear radio transmissions en route to fires. One of the firefighters was brought up on charges and suspended this week without pay because he moved while being told to stand at attention.

Instead of addressing the rig problems, King forced the firefighters to give up their new rig to another fire company, even though Engine 52 serves one of the most unprotected areas of Detroit – the northeast section that ran out of engines to respond to a rash of fires last month. Engine 52’s crew was given a defective rig riddled with mechanical problems, a stark example of choosing retaliation over the public’s safety.

“All I wanted to do was bring the problem to their attention,” O’Lear told us. “We never said it was too unsafe to use, but John King took it away and never gave us a good reason why.”

In June, Sgt. William Harp was punished for blowing the whistle on hazardous conditions at a Midtown firehouse, which included long-neglected smoke and fire alarms, numerous fire hazards and an eroding ceiling.

His violation?

Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins
Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins

“The Sgt. was disciplined for violating a chain of command policy,” Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins wrote us in an e-mail in June.

The threats are working. Firefighters, who are forced to live in firehouses riddled with mold, asbestos, lead paint and fire hazards, often are frightened to speak out, even when their own safety is at risk.

“Everyone knows that the administration will make your life a living hell if you dare say anything negative,” one fire captain told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. “These guys are more worried protecting their asses than protecting the public’s safety. It’s outrageous.”

Neither Jenkins nor the mayor’s office would comment for this story.

Mayor Duggan
Mayor Duggan

Mayor Duggan’s administration has become incensed with firefighters for talking to Motor City Muckraker and has defended the fire administration’s handling of safety complaints.

While Duggan was the Wayne County prosecutor, he was sued twice by whistleblowers who made similar complaints about a culture of retaliation.

MiOSHA officials said firefighters are protected under state law for blowing the whistle on safety issues and plan to investigate how the city is handling complaints.
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“Firefighters, like all workers, have the right to file a complaint with MIOSHA. If they go to their management with concerns about workplace safety and health hazards and those are not addressed, they are encouraged to file a complaint with MIOSHA,” Tanya Baker, spokeswoman for MiOSHSA, told us.

In January, fire officials posted memos threatening firefighters with discipline for speaking to the media.

The punishment?

“For a first offense, it could range from a written reprimand to a suspension of up to six days,” Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins told us in a statement in January.

An injured firefighter is tended to.
An injured firefighter is tended to.

Second Deputy Commissioner Craig Dougherty, who has ignored national standards by failing to ensure mechanics are qualified and that hoses, aerial ladders and pumps are tested annually, has threatened and intimidated firefighters who he believed were talking to us.

One firefighter said Dougherty cornered him and pledged to fire anyone who spoke out.

Complicating the problem is fire union leadership that has forged unusually close ties with Mayor Duggan’s office and was even given access to the administration’s suite at Comerica Park. In a report to firefighters, Robert Shinske, treasurer of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, encouraged his colleagues not to speak to the media.

“We know that some of our members want to see us in the media, but our current strategy is to only use the media as a last resort,” he wrote. “Right now the mayor’s office is open and he is listening. One sure way to shut that door is to put a muzzle on his ears to our issues is through media coverage.”

Tri-Data, a group of consultants of public safety, examined the Fire Department for about a year in 2014 and concluded that the administration cultivated a “culture of cover-up.” One exception to the problems found in the report were the firefighters.

“The DFD has some of the most dedicated firefighters and officers found anywhere,” the report found. “It became obvious during our many visits to Detroit that firefighters and EMS personnel, despite their concern about job security and the loss of pay and benefits, never wavered in their dedication to the City and its residents. The DFD has a rich tradition and history, which is probably one reason why fire and EMS personnel are so dedicated.”

This house on the west side stood no chance with a faulty hydrant.
This house on the west side stood no chance with a faulty hydrant.

When it comes to other damaging information, such as public records, the city has denied us access, violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act. In April, Motor City Muckraker sued the city for refusing to turn over records of broken hydrants after we reported that hundreds of fire plugs were broken. The city maintained only 70 hydrants were broken.

Since then, the city has insisted it lost most of the records, even though every firehouse keeps logs of broken fire hydrants dating back decades.

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.

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