The news site Motor City Muckraker took it upon itself to track every fire in the city of Detroit for a year.
When you take on a project like that, you begin to see and hear about the problems faced by one of the most overworked fire departments in the nation.
Steve Neavling runs Motor City Muckraker. He tells us the Detroit Fire Department was “a bureaucracy that was literally in shambles.”
Neavling found that fire hydrants across the city were broken, the firefighters didn’t have purified air in their tanks, their trucks were breaking down, the whole system was a mess.
“The city was literally burning down, and we had neighborhoods where houses were going up every night,” he says. “It seemed like a story that wasn’t being told.”
Neavling tracked an estimated 3,600 fires in Detroit, which he says is about average for the city. The big difference, he says, is that there were more fires that spread to other houses because the firefighters are forced to make do without proper or fully functioning equipment.
He tells us that when they started digging into the story, they expected a lot of the issues with Detroit’s fire department to stem from the city’s recent financial problems, but that wasn’t entirely the case.
Instead, Neavling says he found the problems stemmed more from “a lack of accountability [and] poor management.”
On top of that, he tells us firefighters were being threatened for talking to him and other media, and it appeared that the city wanted to keep the department’s situation under wraps because it didn’t fit the narrative of a city emerging triumphantly from bankruptcy.
“There was one firefighter who they were trying to fire … and the sole reason was talking to me,” he says.
“These guys weren’t just dealing with, you know, everyday struggles of a poor city fire department, these guys were dealing every day with violations of state and federal safety laws,” Neavling says. “There’s just myriad problems that the mayor just didn’t want getting out because he didn’t want people to see what a disaster the fire department is.”
Eventually Neavling was allowed to meet with Mayor Duggan’s administration, and he says it went really well. They asked what his observations were, and he told them that if they wanted to help the fire department, they’d need a new administration, “because these guys are stonewalling any chance to bring reforms to the department.”
It wasn’t long before Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins was out of the position and replaced by former Detroit Assistant Police Chief Eric Jones.
“The mayor said, 'We need somebody outside of the department who hasn’t been a part of this culture to go in there and shake it up,'” Neavling says.
He tells us that Jones did such a fantastic job cleaning up and demanding accountability in Detroit’s billing department, the mayor decided he was the right man for the job.
“And he took it on like a calling,” Neavling says. “Immediately the first thing he does when he gets on the job is he demands all the top brass reapply for their jobs.”
In Detroit, most of the fire department’s higher offices have historically been attained through seniority, but that changed two years ago.
“The bankruptcy allowed the city to go in and tinker with the union contract so that they could then hire based on merit rather than seniority,” he says. “That’s really helped as they’re trying to build a new fire department because now, Eric Jones can hire the best and brightest people.”
The department has since seen repairs to some of the firehouses, 10 new fire trucks, more firefighters hired, and a smartphone app to streamline the process of reporting broken fire hydrants.
Neavling points out there’s still a long way to go, with up to 2,500 hydrants in the city still broken, but it’s all a step in the right direction.
– Ryan Grimes, Stateside
This story was updated to correct a sentence that indicated Edsel Jenkins was fired. Jenkins resigned.