The box alarm at the abandoned bungalow on East Kirby Street was a typical fire in Detroit. Flames roared out of the upstairs windows as crews arrived shortly after 5 A.M. on Nov. 15, 2008. Engine 23 rolled up, joined by its housemate, Tactical Mobile Squad 3. There were two other engines, a...
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"You stand outside and you worry the whole time that something is going to happen to these guys," he said. "You know they're aggressive, and you don't want to stop that. It's really a fine line of whether to leave them in or pull them out."
Doing More With Less
Detroit is the nation's most beleaguered big city. It has deep-seated problems caused by global forces that make the job of fire commissioner â?? or police chief, public works director and even mayor â?? almost impossible.
With fewer than 900,000 residents, Detroit has lost more than half of its population since 1950, as jobs and people left for the suburbs and beyond. Detroit has frustrated a long list of leaders' plans to re-invent it, though money has poured into the downtown area in recent years in new stadiums, casinos and other developments. The city hosted the 2006 Super Bowl and this month is the site of the 2009 NCAA Final Four. But many neighborhoods are ravaged. The average house price in Detroit at the time of Harris' death was $18,513. It is the poorest major city in the United States, its crime rate annually is one of the highest and the continual outflow of residents means a shrinking tax base that forces periodic cutbacks in city services.
Large swaths of streetlights are out on any given night. Residents constantly complain about the slow response of police. And the fire department limps by with deactivated companies and broken rigs.
"We roll the dice every day," said Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association. "Every day, the Detroit Fire Department and the city of Detroit make a bet. They're betting that they can provide the minimum amount of service and that nobody is going to die."
On paper, the department operates 66 vehicles: 38 engines, 22 ladders and six squads. But because of manpower and budget problems, the full fleet virtually never is available. Department officials take up to 11 working rigs out of service each day and allow others to respond to runs with serious malfunctions.
February 18 this year was typical. Officials deactivated six engines and two trucks. Seven additional ladders operated that day with broken water towers, pumps, red lines or other problems. In addition, the crew of Squad 4 answered runs in an engine with none of its usual rescue gear because the regular squad was in the shop and there were no backup squad vehicles available.
It is not unusual for battalion chiefs to arrive at a fire and cringe when they see the rigs on the scene. On April 26, 2008, for example, Chief 5 reported to the central dispatcher a two-story dwelling "going throughout" at 30th and Horatio streets.
About 15 minutes later, he got on the radio again, sounding exasperated.
"Central, I'm going to need a truck with a working water tower," he said.
And with nearly a quarter of the rigs out of service or running broken on some days, the department confronts a fire load that is one of the nation's heaviest, by any measure.
"You're fighting more fires with fewer people," Lieutenant Anthony Braceful said on a day in February after his Ladder 25 had recorded 10 runs, including five fires in a row.
Structure fires dropped in 2008 to 8,289 from the 14,321 in 2007, but that still works out to an average of 23 fires a day last year in homes and buildings alone.
Engine 23 is not the busiest company in Detroit, but the month Harris died, it responded to 62 fires and racked up almost 48 hours of fire service.
On top of the daily company closing, officials have shut 25 companies permanently over the past 35 years. Firefighters say the reductions hurt their response times as rigs travel farther to fires. In some extreme cases in the past couple of years, companies on the city's west side have rushed 10 miles across town for an east-side blaze. In the late afternoon of June 27 last year, after a fierce electrical storm, downed wires sparked a fire in a transformer at City Hall and several other fires broke out, firefighters say dispatchers signaled they had run out of companies for a short time.