Manpower Crisis In Detroit Fire Department: 40 Percent of Rigs Out of Service Today

The city's budget crisis landed suddenly on the Detroit Fire Department this week as officials took far more rigs out of service than ever before.

On paper, the city has had 66 rigs; about eight rigs are usually "browned out" on any given day for budget reasons, leaving around 58 fully staffed fire vehicles, or "companies," stationed across Detroit.

On Thursday, the department de-activated 25 rigs, leaving only 41 vehicles to respond to calls across the 139-square-mile city, which has one of the busiest fire departments in the nation. On Friday, officials sidelined 21 rigs, plus the HazMat unit.

On Wednesday, 18 rigs were shut down.

The moves endanger both residents and fire fighters alike, critics charge. Some de-activated units have protected the city for more than a century.

"I never thought the city would allow this to happen," said Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association.

These de-activations are not the permanent closings that are coming under the new budgetary reality in Detroit city government. The reason for the sudden drop in rigs over the past two days is overtime costs.

 In the new fiscal year, as the administration of Mayor Dave Bing works with the state on the fiscal stability agreement, fire department's overall budget was cut by $23.5 million, to $160 million.

 Before Wednesday, the department would call in up to 70 fire fighters on overtime to staff the 58 rigs every day. Those days are gone, fire Commissioner Donald Austin told Deadline Detroit  Thursday afternoon.

Austin said he has $2.4 million to spend on overtime for the entire fiscal year, which is in its fifth day. Last year, he spent 50 percent of his $5 million overtime budget in the first month, and kept spending, eventually using $9 million. 

"We're trying to do the best we can," Austin said, "within the budget restraints." 

Austin said the number of rigs in operation will depend on how many fire fighters are available to work each day. He said he has to parcel out overtime carefully because he'll need it for days when wind storms are forecast or on the opening of deer season or Opening Day for the Tigers, times when lots of fire fighters traditionally use vacation time. 

 "It's a delicate balancing act," he said. "We're going to look at it every day...We're kind of rolling the dice every day."

He added: "We're not going to get it right every day."

Austin said the goal is to operate 46 rigs on a daily basis,  but he said he feels comfortable even with 41, as the department has today. He noted 60 percent of the fires in Detroit are in abandoned structures, though he acknowledged there are dangers in those blazes, too, both for fire fighters and residents who live nearby.

He said when Detroit had 99 rigs -- in the 1950s and 60s -- people still died in fires, and questioned whether there is a link between having a certain number of rigs in operation and the number of fire deaths a city experiences.

"We're trying to be the best we can," Austin said.

For the past several years July 4 has been a busy day for fires in Detroit. Fire fighters said the early evening storm yesterday kept people inside and laid down a layer of moisture, which held back the number of incidents. There were no major blazes that would have required numerous rigs and left gaping holes in coverage in other parts of Detroit.

"The city dodged a major bullet," said one lieutenant who worked Wednesday.

Still, 18 fewer rigs made a difference Wednesday, as crews were dispatched both to deal with downed power wires and to respond to multiple fires.

Engine Co. 17, housed near the Fisher Building, was called to fight a blaze in southwest Detroit, far outside its normal area. The battalion chief at that fire called for an additional pumper engine. There were none available; the dispatcher had to send a ladder truck instead.

At 10 p.m., the dispatcher advised crews that were sitting on wires for long periods of time that there were no units available to relieve them.

Earlier this week, the department ended a long practice of sending five rigs to every reported structure fire: Three pumper engines, one ladder truck, one rescue squad, plus a battalion chief to supervise. Now two pumpers are sent, which means four fewer fire fighters for manpower.

The department last week announced the layoffs of 164 fire fighters, but 104 of those jobs will be saved by a two-year federal grant. No layoffs have taken place yet.

Fire fighters interviewed today said the sudden drop of rigs in service, plus the new configuration of rigs that respond to fires has affected their way of combating blazes.

"Our whole system is screwed up," said one fire fighter, who asked to remain anonymous.

At 7 a.m. shift change on Wednesday and Thursday, some units called in their status on the department radio.

Engine Co. 23, stationed on East Grand Boulevard near the frequently burning Packard Plant, was one of the rigs de-activated Wednesday.

On the radio, its supervisor said: "After 113 years of service to the citizens of Detroit, Engine 23 is out of service."

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