FOIA victory: Motor City Muckraker gets broken hydrant records from Detroit

Ford Field hydrant_1106
Broken hydrant outside of Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. Photo by Steve Neavling.

The city of Detroit turned over more than 1,000 records of broken fire hydrants after Motor City Muckraker filed a lawsuit under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

The records show the city grossly misrepresented the number of broken hydrants earlier this year, as first documented in our series about the city neglecting fire plugs in April. The city said approximately 70 hydrants were broken, but records show nearly 1,000 were nonfunctioning.

Attorney Ralph Simpson
Attorney Ralph Simpson

Muckraker’s attorney, Ralph Simpson, sued the city in April, saying the records are public information and address a critical public safety issue.

“The purpose of FOIA is to provide full and complete information regarding the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees,” Simpson said.
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“Clearly, the public has a right to know whether the city’s hydrants are being maintained in a proper manner.”

In February, the city refused to disclose the records, claiming the number and locations of bad hydrants would be used by arsonists “to plan and start a mass fire in those specific areas,” even though the fire plugs were clearly marked as “out of order.” The city also created an app – Improve Detroit – that provided public access to every broken hydrant in real time. 

Click here to see the lawsuit.

Under a settlement, which was approved by City Council this week, Detroit agreed to release six months of records and pay our attorney fees. But Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration insisted it lost all broken hydrant records prior to October 2014 after a former employee appeared to have deleted them.

A broken hydrant outside of a church on Detroit's west side. Photo by Steve Neavling.
A broken hydrant outside of a church on Detroit’s west side. Photo by Steve Neavling.

After we pointed out that the records also are kept in log books at the city’s firehouses, the administration today pledged to provide us with access.

Following our series, Duggan’s administration has taken the hydrant crisis seriously and began testing every fire plug for the first time in more than a decade, revealing serious water-pressure problems because of brittle, aging water mains.

Firefighters continue to be stifled by bad hydrants, highlighted most recently by a neighborhood where fires have spread to houses and a large apartment building because of poor water pressure over the past three months. In August, every hydrant in an east-side neighborhood failed as a house fire spread.

The coverage of fire hydrants is part of our yearlong examination of the beleaguered, underfunded Fire Department and its fatigued firefighters.

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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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