New chief putting mark on Detroit fire dept.

Christine Ferretti, and George Hunter

In his first months as the new head of Detroit’s beleaguered Fire Department, Eric Jones is building bridges with union leaders, touting improved response times and a decline in arson fires. But aging infrastructure, worker safety and wages are among the issues that remain on his hefty to-do list.

Jones, 47, was appointed to the Detroit Fire Department’s top post in October. That same day, two of the department’s emergency medical technicians suffered serious injuries in a vicious box cutter attack — the most violent among 17 assaults on city EMTs in a one-year span.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News, the fire commissioner detailed the challenges facing the fire department and plans for boosting morale, pay and safety training for the city’s first responders. Outdated infrastructure and technology, Jones says, are getting a revamp.

“When I wake up in the morning, it’s challenging. But I know at the end of day when I look back, I’m going to be able to walk away knowing that this place is better than it was when I first arrived,” Jones said. “That’s the goal.”

Among his first acts, Jones in November instituted new safety training for the department’s EMTs. Instructors are being schooled on techniques for interacting with violent individuals or people with mental illness. Separately, a two-month defensive tactics program begins this month.

“Any protective measures that we can put in place to make sure our employees make it safely home, we’re going to do it,” he said.

Body armor is another “very robust consideration” to be revisited after the department completes its other training. A recent survey, Jones said, revealed EMTs overwhelmingly supported the idea. Jones said he wouldn’t expect armor to be mandatory, and it's unclear who would cover costs of the gear.

Joseph Barney, a representative of Police Officers Association of Michigan who represents the EMTs, said the training needs are reflective of the changing times in public safety. It’s something, he says, Jones is committed to.

“We are in a different age now,” said Barney, a paramedic, who says four guns and multiple knives have been pulled on him in his 22-year career. “You are never going to be totally safe out here. Anything can happen at any time. But if I had body armor available to me personally, I would wear it.”

On another front, Jones says he’s working to change the past relationship between the administration and unions, which he characterized as a “blood feud.”

“Morale is rising, but we know it’s money, the benefits and all of the things that happened during our transition from bankruptcy,” he said. “From all the feedback I’m getting talking to union people, we see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train.”

Jones took on the fire leadership role after spending about 16 months as director of the city’s Building Safety Engineering & Environmental Department. He served in the Detroit Police Department for 25 years, most recently as an assistant chief, before he retired in 2014.

Detroit Fire Fighter Association President Mike Nevin says cooperation between the union and management has grown in recent years. Although some were wary of Jones because he didn’t come from the fire department ranks, Nevin believes change was needed.

“It doesn’t matter if he was a firefighter or not; in fact, I think he’s the perfect guy for the job because we needed someone to come in from the outside,” he said. “The union is working with him because he’s smart enough to listen.”

Detroit’s public safety workers are among the lowest paid in the country. In December, city administration and police announced an agreement to boost pay and incentives for Detroit’s police officers.

Barney said pay has been a major concern for the city’s EMTs and contends there have been “false promises” coming out of the past administrations, and it’s been “damaging to my members.”

But Jones says a wage increase for the fire department — and potentially paramedics and EMTs — will be coming next. Entry pay for firefighters in Detroit is $31,553, and tops out at $51,506. The EMTs start at $28,225 and top out at $38,355; paramedics come in at $43,888 and reach a top pay of $46,779.

“It’s not going to be everything they want but will get us closer,” he said.

In recent months, the fire department embarked on a pilot project in partnership with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to better facilitate inspections of Detroit’s 30,000 fire hydrants.

The program has the city’s firefighters mapping hydrants by district and reporting problems to DWSD in real time via a new app. The approach replaces a former, paper-driven process that became bogged down by bureaucracy, officials said.

“For years, as the money was reduced for maintenance, the thought was ‘if we can get it open, we can use it. If we break it, we’ll report it,’ ” said Dave Fornell, an adviser to the fire commissioner. “Some preventative maintenance was put off because there was no money to do it.”

Based on monthly inspections, about 5 percent — or 1,500 hydrants — need work at any given time, says Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer at the water department.

DWSD’s outdated processes formerly left some crews unable to locate specific problem hydrants. All hydrants were logged in the department’s data system, but it wasn’t updated regularly, Mobley said. They began using the application regularly in the fall and have upped crews dedicated to repairs from three to five as well as contractors.

On average, DWSD is fixing 300-400 hydrants per week, Mobley said.

Fire equipment needs as well as the condition and functionality of the city’s 38 fire houses are also being studied, Jones said.

The department’s technological deficiencies were detailed in testimony presented during Detroit’s historic bankruptcy trial, including stories of firefighters placing an empty pop can beneath a printer and listening for the sound of it being knocked over as an alert mechanism for emergencies.

Jones said he’s instituted daily inspection reports at shift change to ensure various technology including phones, printers, radios and other electronics are functioning properly. The equipment has been there, but there weren’t practices to hold people accountable for fixes.

“To me, the worst thing that can happen is that you miss a fire run or you miss a 911 call for someone asking for medical services,” he said.

Jones also touted signs of improvement, noting the city’s arson fires were down in 2015, with 52 reported over the city’s three-day Angels’ Night campaign.

Arson investigations are up about 30 percent since nine police investigators were added on July 1. Arrest numbers for the arson unit increased about 78 percent and warrants submitted to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office went up 13 percent, Jones said.

There was a 20 percent decrease in fires in 2015 over 2014, with 4,600 structure fires in 2014 and 3,700 last year.

Firefighters are averaging 11-16 fires per day in Detroit. In the last week of 2015, the city’s fire response time reached 6 minutes and 37 seconds, the lowest in the city’s history, Jones said.

“There’s a resurgence in Detroit that we all know,” he said. “Cities that are healthy, they don’t burn.”