Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Muckraker Steve Neavling has uncovered everything from busted rigs to broken hydrants to fragile pipes.
For years, Detroit has been among the most arson-plagued places in the nation, with home-insurance rates double the Michigan state average as a result. The same shrinking tax base and dwindling municipal fortunes that have exacerbated the arson problem have steadily eroded Detroit’s capacity to fight fires, whether intentionally set or not. Even as the city has emerged from bankruptcy over the past several months, there have been serious questions about its commitment to maintaining and upgrading its fire response capabilities.
One independent journalist, the Motor City Muckraker’s Steve Neavling, was so concerned by the Detroit Fire Department that he devoted himself to documenting its woes from every angle. “I wanted to do something that mattered to the people in the city of Detroit,” says Neavling, who worked at the Detroit Free Press before starting his own site about three years ago.
In line with that mission, Neavling started following police scanner traffic around the clock, listening to every call regarding a fire. He spends up to 14 hours a day working on the project. “As I started to pay attention, I noticed that every part of the fire department was messed up,” says Neavling. “Rigs broken, hydrants not working, firefighters forced to live in squalid conditions.”
The result of Neavling’s focus has been a series of articles detailing the problems facing the DFD. The work is based on documents, scanner traffic, and extensive interviews with sources within the department, from rank-and-file firefighters to officers. He’s done some off his most in-depth reporting on the deficiencies of fire trucks, recently publishing an article headlined “‘Rolling the dice:’ Detroit routinely sends dangerously defective rigs to fires.” Neavling writes:
Detroit’s 46 fire engines, 18 ladder trucks and six squads are rundown and unreliable, often left in service until they break down, log books show. As a result, rigs are routinely sent to fires with bad brakes, defective oil gauges, faulty hydraulic systems, mismatched tires, broken pumps, leaking fluids, nonworking sirens and lights and patchwork repairs that often come undone during emergencies.
Maintenance problems are so pervasive that at least half of the rigs have missed runs because they couldn’t start at their quarters in the past 18 months, according to dispatch reports and log books.
Neavling’s claims have been countered publicly by the DFD administration (which did not return a request for comment from CityLab). “The fleet of the Detroit Fire Department has never been in better condition than it is right now,” the city’s fire commissioner, Edsel Jenkins, told a reporter from local TV station WXYZ who was following up on Neavling’s reporting in late July.
Department reps told Ronnie Dahl of WXYZ that over the past two years the city has approved $21.8 million for new equipment, with an additional $1.8 million for maintenance. Ten new fire engines will be added to the fleet. “From February of 2014 up to today, our apparatus is up to snuff,” Jenkins added in his interview with the TV station. “We respond to any location in the city within seven minutes. Two engines, a truck, a chief, and a rescue squad.”
The department also issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Neavling’s reporting to Deadline Detroit. Neavling then responded to their rebuttal, point by point, in the same post.
(Neavling himself has been the target of many criticisms and has attracted some controversy. Deadline Detroit once wondered if he was “the most hated man in Detroit,” and late last year a man who runs a Facebook page called Motor City Muckraker Muckraker posted a video of Neavling “assaulting” him by pushing a camera away at a fire scene. Neavling says the police never contacted him about assault charges.)
The details of just how quickly the city is buying new trucks and just how well they are being maintained in the last several months may be up for debate. But Motor City Muckraker’s ongoing reporting of individual fires shows how deep the problems run. Neavling is following each one that occurs in the city in 2015—the number will likely be around 3,000, if past years are any indication.
It takes more than fire trucks to fight fires. First responders also need functioning hydrants so that they can put out the flames, and Neavling has documented the prevalence of broken hydrants across the city, too. Back in March, after his own examination of about 15 percent of the city’s 30,000 hydrants, he reported that 279 were flagged by the fire department as broken. The beleaguered Detroit Sewerage and Water Department is in charge of maintaining hydrants. Mayor Mike Duggan’s office responded to the investigation quickly, Neavling wrote:
The Duggan administration insisted it had no idea the problem was so widespread and pledged to waste no time correcting it.
Even when hydrants are functioning, Neavling says firefighters are hampered by the fragile condition of the century-old water pipes under the city, which can break when asked to convey water under the kind of pressure needed to effectively combat a blaze.
As recently as August 14, the lack of functioning hydrants may have contributed to the total loss of an occupied home on the city’s east side. Neavling reported on how the house burned to the ground after firefighters were unable to find a working hydrant anywhere in the vicinity. Adjacent houses were damaged by the flames as well.
Neavling says such fires can lead to a cycle of decay, especially if responders are unable to limit the damage to one house. “It’s devastating to look at a block that was fully occupied two years ago and now has only four or five houses that are occupied because the rest are burned down or have fire damage,” he says. Remaining homeowners may want to leave for a better neighborhood or the suburbs but can’t because no one wants to buy on a now-blighted block. It’s all become a normal part of life in some parts of town, he says.
“That’s the sad thing—there’s almost no shock anymore,” Neavling says. “When there’s a fire, people expect a slow response, and that when the firefighters get there they won’t have the equipment. You see a lot of people who say: ‘All I can do is pray. I’m putting it in God’s hands. There’s nothing else we can do.’ ”
Some of Neavling’s critics say he focuses too much on the city’s negatives, ignoring the progress that is being made as Detroit recovers from years of decay and fiscal mismanagement. He responds that the positive stories are being told in lots of places, but he wants to focus on the big parts of the city that are still neglected.
“There’s wonderful progress in about nine of the 139 square miles [of Detroit],” he says. “The rest of those square miles are really challenged and are really ignored. Those neighborhoods have been almost rendered voiceless because no one is looking out for them. I write these stories because I love this city.”