Detroit wildly underreports fire-related injuries, fatalities and arsons

Photos by Steve Neavling.
Photos by Steve Neavling.

The city of Detroit painted a wildly inaccurate and misleading picture of the fire crisis through a public database that was supposed to create transparency but instead is riddled with egregious errors and omissions.

Motor City Muckraker analysis of fire records reveals numerous problems with Mayor Mike Duggan’s open data portal, an initiative intended to make information more available to the public.

actual fire fatalitiesThe city grossly underreported fire-related injuries and fatalities from Jan. 1 to Sept 30. Of the 29 civilian deaths, the city reported only 14.

During the same period, more than 40 firefighters were injured, some of them seriously. But the city reported just one injured firefighter.

The Fire Department also underreported civilian injuries by more than half, omitting at least 80 injuries.

The city continued to report inaccurate data for two months after we alerted the Fire Department and mayor’s administration that the information undermined the severity of the fire crisis.

Commissioner Eric Jones.
Commissioner Eric Jones.

But that changed just days after Eric Jones became the new fire commissioner in mid-October. After hearing about the inaccuracies, Jones ordered the department to stop updating the data because the information was often misleading or flat-out wrong.

“The data is contaminated,” said Jones, who is undertaking the monumental task of reforming a long-mismanaged fire department that has been accused by independent consultants this year of fostering a “cover-up culture.”

“I’m not going to play with numbers like that,” Jones continued. “I would rather report no information than report bad or misleading data.”

Here are some of our findings:

  • Firefighters reportedly responded to more than 400 calls in 0 seconds, an impossibility that artificially lowers the average response times.
  • Although most fires were deemed suspicious by firefighters, a vast majority are reported as “unintentional” or “cause under investigation,” which obscures the severity of the arsons. Those include a senior’s home struck by molotov cocktails and a fire where an arson suspect was apprehended.
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  • More than 30 buildings that caught fire, some of them severely, reportedly sustained damage of just $1, calling into question the accuracy of damage assessments and possibly impacting homeowner insurance claims.
  • The city underreported dozens of house fires by often failing to indicate when flames spread to neighboring houses, which has become a sad reality as firefighters continue to struggle with out-dated, defective equipment and broken hydrants.
  • Firefighter and civilian injuries and fatalities were underreported by more than half.

Firefighters said the underreported injuries and fatalities are an insult to the hard-working men and women who risk their lives every day extinguishing fires and rescuing residents.

“The issue of politically driven, corrupted and misleading data has plagued our Fire Department for nearly two generations,” Detroit Fire Fighters Association President Mike Nevin said. “The resurgence of Detroit depends on accurate and transparent data, period.”

Jones said a preliminary investigation found a deeply flawed process of reporting the information.

The city launched the open data portal for fires in August, but did little to nothing to ensure the information was accurate. According to the city’s website, the posted information was “raw” and not vetted for accuracy.

“There was no leadership; there was no accountability,” Jones told us. “The data is not collected properly. It’s ridiculous.”

The Fire Department’s data analyst, Cassandra DeWitt, who is responsible for updating the open data portal, didn’t respond to our requests for interviews.

When Mayor Duggan announced the open data portal, he said it was a positive step toward more transparency.

“Providing access to information is one of the most important things we can do to keep the public’s trust and establish a sense of accountability within city government,” Duggan said at the time. “Today is an important first step in that direction and one we will continue to build on as more information is added to this new website.”

Jones said he’s taking extra steps to ensure the information is accurate before it is made available in the open data portal. He expects the department will resume reporting the data once a system is in place to ensure the information is vetted by top brass and deemed reliable. The goal is to resume reporting the data in January.

“As it stands, a lot of the data is wrong,” Jones said. “We have to be confident that what we are reporting is accurate.”

Nevin said he’s happy the new commissioner is taking the issue seriously.

“Jones has demonstrated he is a straight-forward administrator,” Nevin said. “I look forward to working with Jones and hope the ‘same ole, same ole’ days are over. The public expects that. Firefighters deserve that.”

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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