Department punishes critics
themselves against charges of violating Detroit station policies
Claxton and Charles Hurt / The
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
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
Detroit News investigation found:
or poorly maintained, fire trucks forced at least one of Detroit's 71 fire
companies to close on 220 days last year.
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
fire stations lack central alarms, forcing firefighters to rig contraptions
to alert them to an emergency.
department regularly deploys trucks with just three firefighters on board,
violating minimum standards recommended by national firefighter organizations.
Fire Department: Out of Service