City records set ablaze in Detroit Fire Department’s old academy

Former Detroit Fire Academy on W. Warren & Lawton. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Story updated at 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

When the Detroit Fire Department moved to a new training academy in 2015, city officials abandoned tens of thousands of records, many of them with sensitive information, in its former five-story building. 

Mayor Duggan’s administration was warned more than a year ago that the former training academy at W. Warren and Lawton was open to trespass, and scavengers were stealing scrap metal. Scattered throughout the building were mounds of records containing arson evidence, confidential medical information, the social security numbers of firefighters, historic data and the addresses, names and phone numbers of victims and witnesses.

Some of the records included the social security numbers of firefighters. Motor City Muckraker blacked out the numbers.

Despite numerous warnings that the records and arson evidence were vulnerable to theft or destruction, city officials failed to secure the building.

On Thursday, just one week after Motor City Muckraker revealed the building was still open to trespassers, an arsonist set fire to records on several floors. One firefighter was injured in the blaze.

At some point in the past year, the Detroit Building Authority took over the abandoned building.

Records scattered outside of the Detroit Fire Academy.

On Saturday afternoon, the graffiti-tagged building was still wide open to trespass, with a trail of records left behind in the parking lot.

Several hours after this story was posted, the Detroit Fire Department issued a response, saying the city plans to secure the building Monday and will ensure there are no more sensitive or useful records.

In the response, 2nd Deputy Fire Commissioner Charles Simms insisted, “The city secured the former academy building with padlocked fencing and boards when the fire department vacated it and has responded to all requests to have it re-secured since then. Crews will be out on Monday to make sure it is secured once more.” 

“Regarding the records, DFD has had staff out to this facility on numerous occasions in the past year combing through records to remove any that may be sensitive or have any investigatory value to the arson unit.  Today and tomorrow we will have staff out again to reassess the remaining records.  Any that are determined to have potential value to the department will be removed, as well.”

But photos sent to Motor City Muckraker show the building was often open to trespass and that sensitive information had not been removed. In fact, we reached out to fire officials on several occasions over the past year but the building remained open to trespass, with sensitive records still at the scene.  

“All other documents will be removed from the building this week and securely transported to the incinerator to be destroyed under supervision,” Simms said.

The discovery comes as Detroit police plan to resubmit its request to prosecutors to charge Mike Nevin, the Detroit Fire Fighters Association president accused of disseminating “sensitive information to the public.”

The unusual investigation into the 31-year veteran of the Fire Department has raised suspicions of revenge because Nevin blew the whistle on slow police response times that are endangering public safety. When Police Chief James Craig suggested Nevin was lying last month, the union boss sent a copy of a police report that showed he was correct.

As police struggle to respond timely to violent crimes – as detailed in our ongoing Twitter thread – they wasted no time going after Nevin, a native Detroiter whose father also was a firefighter.

Since August, Nevin has been meeting with city council members, Mayor Mike Duggan and state lawmakers over what he’s described as “a crisis in public safety.” Nevin is urging elected officials to help restore the number of firefighters, medics and police officers who were severely cut before and during the 2013 municipal bankruptcy. 

The bankruptcy was intended to restore public safety, but the opposite is happening. Mayor Mike Duggan is demanding that the police and fire departments cut their budgets by 5%, while dishing out hundreds of millions of dollars to billionaire developers and Ford Motor Co.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which is busy handling charges against violent suspects, said Saturday it has not yet received a resubmitted request for criminal charges.

In 2015, the fire department moved its training academy, once considered one of the best in the country, to the Coleman A. Young International Airport.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether police were investigating the heaps of abandoned records.

The Detroit Fire Academy remained open to trespass several days after the fire.
First floor of the Detroit Fire Academy after the fire.
Arson evidence left behind.
Detroit Fire Academy after the fire.
Abandoned records in May 2018.

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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.