Cuts to Reduce Detroit Fire Service

Detroit appears ready to cut its fire department by as many as 150 of 1,200 firefighters.

The layoffs would come after 63 firefighters lost their jobs July 1 as the city struggles to plug a projected $300-million shortfall in its $1.4-billion budget.

Officials from Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's administration were to unveil a department restructuring Monday, but postponed that announcement at the last moment. It is now scheduled this afternoon.

Still, it is likely that today will bring news that people who live, work and visit Detroit soon will be served by fewer firefighters and fire vehicles.

On June 30, 71 ladder trucks, pumpers and rescue squads were responding to fires. But there are 66 responding now after the earlier layoffs. In the coming days, the number of rigs could sink as low as 60.

Firefighters say the combined effect of layoffs and taking rigs out of service will result in slower response time.

"The farther away we come, the more time that fire has to double in size, threatening the lives of civilians and firefighters," Dan McNamara, president of Detroit Fire Fighters Association, said Monday. "We're going to go from a crippled department to a decimated department."

Mayoral spokesman Howard Hughey said the announcement was delayed so Kilpatrick could figure out a way to do the least harm.

"No politics has been involved," Hughey said. "This mayor has been totally focused on preserving public safety in this city. And his focus on public safety is what has guided this process."

Trying to determine the relationship between fire-department reductions and public safety is an inexact science. Going back more than 30 years, city officials have cut the department by at least 500 firefighters and dozens of rigs as the city's population has plummeted.

But fires and population do not correlate precisely. In fact, the department's workload is heavier in 2005 than it was in 1951, when the city was bursting with 1.85 million people -- twice as many as today.

With greatly increased poverty and abandoned buildings, Detroit has many more fires today than it did five decades ago. Statistics for the past 15 years show the current department spends nearly four times as much time fighting fires as did the bigger department in 1951.

Additional cuts could lead to higher insurance rates for Detroit's homeowners and business people, who already pay the state's highest premiums.

The Insurance Services Office, based in Jersey City, N.J., rates fire departments to help insurance companies determine liability and rates.

Even with decades of cutbacks, the ISO rates Detroit's department higher than any other fire department in the state, according to Dave Dasgupta, an ISO spokesman.

ISO ranks municipalities from 1 to 10, with 1 being the highest rating. Detroit has earned a 2. Across the United States, only about 45 communities received a 1 rating. Houston and Las Vegas were the only major cities that received a 1.

ISO officials determine ratings by such criteria as water supply, training, communications systems, response times and equipment.

Even if Detroit's staffing levels diminish, it may not significantly affect its overall rating if equipment is maintained, response times keep up and other factors are constant or improve, said Dasgupta. And ISO ratings are advisory in nature. Individual insurers set rates.

Angie Rinock, a spokeswoman for State Farm of Michigan -- which insures 1 in 5 homes in the state -- said Detroit fire staffing levels could have an impact on city insurance premiums, but it is too early to tell.

The number and severity of claims are major factors in determining rates, said Rinock.

Tony Sanfilippo, deputy director of the state's bureau of construction codes and fire safety, said a change in Detroit's ISO rating would affect premiums.

"That ends up costing the City of Detroit residents more money, because it will change the rates for homeowners and businesses," said Sanfilippo.

So far, the city has attempted to take vehicles out of service from stations that contain more than one rig. That way, fewer people notice and the stations remain open.

But removing one rig has a ripple effect across the city. For example, Engine 18, located on Mt. Elliott south of Gratiot, responded to reported fires at the Detroit Medical Center, Eastern Market, Comerica Park, Ford Field and downtown before it was removed from service July 1. Since then, another engine has had to take Engine 18's place on runs, and that other engine is often traveling from a greater distance.

McNamara said since July 1 a crew from a central-city fire station has been dispatched to staff a northeast Detroit fire station when the northeast station's crew was out battling a blaze. With any more cuts, McNamara said, "we believe it's going to get catastrophic."

Distributed by the Associated Press