Fire Department punishes critics 
Whistleblowers defend themselves against charges of violating Detroit station policies 
By Melvin Claxton and Charles Hurt / The Detroit News 
 

DETROIT -- While promising major reforms, Detroit fire officials continue to stifle criticism of the Fire Department by concealing important documents, barring firefighters from speaking to the news media and punishing whistleblowers. 

Last month, fire officials changed the locks at one firehouse and threatened to punish any firefighter who let the news media into the building, which was closed for a second time in just over a year for repairs. The city spent more than $2.1 million in 1999 to renovate the station house, located at Cass and Alexandrine. 

Fire Commissioner Charles Wilson and other top department officials have gone beyond mere threats. In October, a firefighter believed to have alerted The Detroit News to problems within the department, was brought up on internal charges and transferred from a highly sought post. 

Fire officials also have denied the existence of damaging records. And they have been slow to respond when asked for updates on the status of promised internal changes. 

Such actions illustrate how Detroit fire officials have sought to hide department deficiencies for years. A nine-month Detroit News investigation published last November found widespread mismanagement on the part of fire and city officials, including problems that contributed to the deaths of at least 21 residents. 

Mayor Dennis Archer and fire officials pledged a major overhaul of the department immediately after the series ran. 

Although fire officials have described the recently completed repairs to the station at Cass and Alexandrine as minor -- the replacement of floor tiles -- they went to great lengths to avoid public scrutiny of the station during construction. In a Dec. 5 memo, Wilson issued a stern warning to firefighters: 

"Effective immediately and by no uncertain terms shall any member of this department allow any member of the broadcast or print media on the property or in the premises of Engine Co. 5 during renovations, without the expressed approval of the executive fire commissioner. Failure to abide by this directive will result in the appropriate corrective action." 

Wilson declined to answer questions about the memo on the station that houses Engine 5, or say why the locks were changed. But Richard Stein, Detroit's chief executive for public safety, said Wilson's memo wasn't an attempt to keep the public in the dark about a construction project that was several hundred thousand dollars over budget and twice required the closing of a critical firehouse that serves downtown Detroit. 

"You have construction going on and it is only natural that the commissioner would want to know who is being allowed in the building and under what circumstances," Stein said. He said the locks were changed because the contractor complained that firefighters, relocated during the renovations, kept returning to the building while it was being repaired. 

But attempts by fire officials to limit access to department records and buildings extend well beyond the Engine 5 incident. 

n October, firefighter Lester Fuller was charged with six counts of violating department policy after fire officials accused him of assisting Detroit News reporters in their investigation. Fuller, 51, was transferred from his regular station house and faces being placed on probation and, possibly, suspension without pay. Fuller, who is awaiting a department hearing on the charges, maintains his only crime was bringing the department's problems to light. 

I did nothing wrong," Fuller said. "I never knew it was a crime to point out flaws when the safety of the public is at stake." 

Fire officials say Fuller violated department policy by allowing News reporters into the fire station at Detroit City Airport and allowing them to review logs and journals. 

Fuller said the department was forced to drop one of the charges because it didn't even exist. "In their haste to bring the charges against me they didn't even bother to check and see if it was a real charge," Fuller said. 

here are serious questions about the validity of another charge. Fuller is charged with violating Federal Aviation Administration policy by allowing reporters into an FAA restricted area. 

But the FAA security department says the airport firehouse is not in a secured area and there is no requirement that visitors obtain FAA clearance. In fact, the FAA has no record of the Fire Department ever requesting such clearance for visitors to the facility. 

Serious problems at the airport fire station where highlighted in The News' four-part series, which ran in early November. The News investigation found that the backup fire truck at the airport -- the facility's main fire truck until a year ago -- was in such poor condition that on some days it couldn't go faster than 30 mph and was regularly broken. 

Last April, when fire officials debated using it to help put out a tanker fire on Interstate 75, they considered hauling it to the scene on a flatbed truck because they didn't think it could make it there on its own. 

Fire officials have been tightlipped on another controversial issue. Wilson didn't respond to written questions about broadcast tapes from the April 1 fire at Pallister Plaissance Apartments. These tapes, recordings of conversations between firefighters in the field and dispatchers, highlighted the numerous problems encountered by those battling the blaze, those familiar with the tapes say. 

Four people died in that fire and a 7-year-old girl was left paralyzed after the first aerial ladder on the scene didn't work. Battalion Chief Michael Hastings was heard on the tapes pleading with dispatchers to send him working ladder trucks and "no more junk," according to firefighters. 

Fire Department officials say Wilson's office requested the Pallister tapes within two days of the fire. Wilson won't say why he asked for the tapes, but Stein said it is common for fire officials to review tapes to assess the performance of firefighters and equipment at a fire. 

The News requested the tapes, but fire officials insisted they were destroyed 90 days after the fire in keeping with department policy. 

Examining Detroit's Fire Department 

   A nine-month Detroit News investigation found: 
   * Broken, or poorly maintained, fire trucks forced at least one of Detroit's 71 fire companies to close on 220 days last year. 
   * More than 2,000 of the city's fire hydrants don't operate. Countless others may be broken, but the city doesn't know because it does not conduct thorough testing. 
   * Detroit fire stations lack central alarms, forcing firefighters to rig contraptions to alert them to an emergency. 
   * The department regularly deploys trucks with just three firefighters on board, violating minimum standards recommended by national firefighter organizations. 
  
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