When Disaster Strikes Detroit, What's the Plan?

When Disaster Strikes Detroit, What's the Plan?


An ambulance crew was set upon by a crazy man earlier this week. They called for help and were first denied it by a supervisor. Please take three minutes and listen to the tape. (article below player)

When Disaster Strikes Detroit, What's the Plan?: MyFoxDETROIT.com 

The recording offers a glimpse of the dangers emergency responders in Detroit face on a daily basis. It also shows the woeful lack of planning by city leadership.

I reached out to those paramedics but they never got back to me and I understand why. Whenever I quote a cop or firefighter or medic it seems the city comes down on them with suspensions or other disciplinary action.

And when that happens their colleagues call me and ask: what’s the deal? What’s my hang-up with the fire department? What change is coming from my magnifying glass except that good people in uniform are getting burned?

As a reporter for the New York Times, I covered Ground Zero in New York from Day 1 to Day 365. I wrote at least 40 obituaries.

Over the course of that year, I also I profiled Squad 1 in Brooklyn – an FDNY unit that lost half its men that terrible, unseasonably warm morning.

I got to know firefighters well. Their fraternity. Their interdependence. Their bravery. I like them. They are men and women of substance. When the bell rings, they answer. No questions asked.

And then, three years ago, I returned home to Detroit. Naturally, I gravitated to the fire department. I profiled Engine 23/Squad 3 on the city’s east side as one of my first newspaper stories.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. Boots with holes in them. Air tanks out of date. Broken down rigs. A jerry-rigged alarm bell. The department brass hadn’t bothered to compile statistics for four years -- a violation of federal guidelines.

While the rest of the country’s fire departments retooled and retrained after the terrorist attacks in New York, Detroit seemed to be in retrograde.

In late 2008, one of the men I profiled at Engine 23 in Detroit died. Walt Harris smothered when a roof collapsed on him and the men could not find him because his homing alarm did not trigger.

It was ruled an arson, making his death a murder, but the police brass put no homicide squad on the case until I shamed them in print. Eventually, the arsonist was caught and sent to prison. Still, it didn’t make me many friends in City Hall and Harris is still dead.

Last September, fires fueled by high winds swept through the city. Neighborhoods burned. There was not then -- and there is not now -- a comprehensive plan for such a fire emergency. In fact, suburban chiefs tell me there is no comprehensive regional plan should the city --God forbid -- be struck with a 9/11 type scenario.

It’s so broken, the city is finding it difficult to find a qualified candidate to fill its vacant fire commissioner job.

Since I started working at FOX 2 a few months ago, I’ve given you at least a dozen stories about infants and elderly who didn’t get an ambulance on time; firefighters and cops thrown in the back of squad cars and transported to the hospital because there were no ambulances available.

The city says the problem is that citizens abuse the 911 system, treating ambulances like taxi cabs. But the fact is people in Cleveland call more. And Cleveland paramedics manage to get to an emergency call in eight minutes.

Why in Detroit don’t all police cars have computers? Why do firefighters carry antiquated radios? Why don’t dispatcher operators have the software to track ambulances? Why does the fire department have difficulty reporting arson number accurately?

City cops routinely pull over to show me their beaten down cruisers. The federal government has sent in excess of $100 million over the last decade to beef up homeland security in the area. Where’s the money, they ask?

I can’t answer them. When I try to find out, I’m met with official roadblocks. I’m asked to pay thousands of dollars to view public documents and contracts that should be available with a phone call.

But I’ll keep digging. I’ll do it on behalf of those in uniform and the people they serve. I’ll do it because I don’t think I have another obituary in me.


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