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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Executive Fire Commissioner Tyrone Scott declined to comment for this article. In the past, he and other city officials have praised firefighters and assured residents that the department always meets demand for service. Last year, the mayor's office noted the city had spent more than $28 million on the fire department in the previous six years, including the purchase of 12 new engines in August 2007.
Gauging the effect of slower response times is complicated given the difficulty of knowing how long a fire has burned before someone calls 911. Every once in a while, though, a sequence of events takes place in Detroit that puts the department's problems in sharp focus.
In late February last year, when fire broke out in the front room of a home on the city's west side, officials had to scramble, because they had idled two of the closest engines that day, and the next closest engine company had been closed permanently in 2005. Marian Rembis, 37, died in the fire. Her father, 69-year-old William, suffered face and hand burns trying to save her. Her death haunted him for months.
"I think Marian just might be alive today if that first engine had been working," one of her aunts, Barbara Brown Allen, said recently. "We don't blame the firefighters. But dear God! It's unconscionable what the department does. It's just wrong."
That night, across town, an 82-year-old man confined to bed died in a fire. The closest engine to his home was six blocks away. It was de-activated that day.
The fleet problems sometimes lead to absurd situations.
During the busy summer of 2007, someone firebombed an abandoned home on Caldwell Street, and the flames extended to a home next door occupied by 22-year-old Adrian Griffin. At least three of the rigs on the scene that night were broken. The engine stretched in front of Griffin's burning house leaked water and pink transmission fluid. Eventually, the rig's motor overheated and had to be shut down.
Griffin noticed, she said later, even as she stood across the street watching her home burn in a ferocious orange ball. She said she asked herself, "Is that fire engine smoking?"
Paradoxically, when Detroit peaked in population in the mid-1950s with 2 million people, the department fought fewer than 6,000 fires a year â?? and there were 101 companies in that era, 34 more than in 2009. The department had around 1,650 firefighters then; today, it has 1,029.
In February, the department graduated its first class of rookie firefighters in four years. The 18 men were all veterans of other city departments, and one was 47. The average age of a Detroit firefighter, according to the union, is 42.
Are Cities Supposed To Be Like Detroit?
One of the reasons for the vastly increased workload is the amount of abandoned buildings. No one knows how many empty homes and businesses exist within Detroit's 138 square miles, but estimates range from 35,000 to 87,000. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Detroit in 2000 had 38,668 vacant houses â?? about 10% of the total number of housing units. Firefighters say that over a year, the majority of their fires take place in empty buildings. In addition to homes, the roster of empty structures includes factories, churches, stores and schools. Detroit also has an abandoned train station that is 17 stories tall, and the remains of a ballpark â?? Tiger Stadium â?? that has been partially demolished.
A few blocks from the quarters of Engine 23/Squad 3 is one of the largest abandoned buildings in the nation, the former home of the Packard Motor Car Co., which stopped making cars in Detroit in 1956. The building has 3.5 million square feet and stretches nearly a mile from north to south. It is crumbling inside and out. Almost all of its thousands of windows are broken, and trees grow out of the roof. Engine 23 and Squad 3 are called there for fires â?? mostly started by scrappers and homeless people â?? at least twice a month.
Of the 12 Detroit firefighters who have died in the line of duty over the past 32 years, six deaths took place at vacant buildings. In 2007, 11-year-veteran Fire Engine Operator Joe Torkos died when the rig he was driving to an arson fire at an abandoned house was rammed by a speeding car.
"After a while, you begin to think this is normal," said Battalion Chief Greg Best, speaking of the Detroit landscape. "You take this for granted. But every once in a while you ask yourself, is this a normal city? Are cities supposed to be like this, with all this abandonment?"