Detroit turns off lights, sirens on some fire runs

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Detroit firefighters battle a two-alarm fire in a recycling yard on Detroit's near east side on January 12, 2018. A new department policy will allow lights and sirens only for emergent runs, instead of all runs.

Detroit — The city's fire department is no longer using lights and sirens on all of its runs, prompting the fire union to warn that the new policy could endanger lives.

But Detroit's fire commissioner says he has no plans to back down on a strategy that gives discretion to dispatchers, firefighters and EMTs to alert those en route to "go easy," which means they can switch off their lights and sirens to arrive safely.

Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones told The Detroit News Monday that disregarding traffic signals and speed limits with the activation of lights and sirens for every single run — even when it's not urgent — is unnecessarily dangerous. 

The policy, which began last month and applies to all fire personnel and those who drive fire department vehicles, classifies runs by two codes: one for emergent runs and the other for non-life threatening calls.

Previously, crews responded to all calls with lights and sirens. The city’s EMS has been dispatching runs by code for years. But the new policy now adds the firefighter runs to the same system, Jones said.

In 2017, EMS responded to 56,604 Code 1 runs and 49,289 Code 2 runs, Jones said. According to city records, the fire department responded to 21,356 documented incidents in 2017; they ranged from building fires to gas leaks to no incident being found upon arrival.

But Detroit Fire Fighter Association President Mike Nevin said the incident response policy leaves too much room for error and could cause firefighters to be underprepared to handle the city's most critical cases.

Nevin appeared Monday before a City Council subcommittee session to provide an overview of the new protocol that he is demanding "go away."

"The firefighters and the medics in the field know that there's no crystal ball in central office, and something that may sound non-emergent on the phone could be very emergent," Nevin told council members during the Public Health and Safety standing committee session. "What they are doing right now is something I'm not going to take a pass on."

Jones said the idea was first raised by a Detroit firefighter who did a master's program thesis on incident response. The department then evaluated the proposal, which, he says, is based on some practices used in other parts of the country, and determined it would be the right move for the department.

"My job as Detroit fire commissioner is to make sure we're protecting property and saving lives. We cannot do that if every time we get a run, we go lights and sirens. It's foolish, and someone will get killed," he said. "The policy is tight, and it is good, and it makes sense. And we're going to save firefighters' and citizens' lives and reduce accidents because of it."

According to the policy, Code 1 response calls require lights and sirens and cover urgent or life-threatening emergencies. That code applies to structure and automobile fires, large grass fires with a threat of exposure, dumpster fires, fires inside a structure and mutual aid calls. 

Code 2 response calls cover requests that need "immediate attention" but have been determined that lights and sirens aren't necessary or have had the "go-easy" directive invoked by the first arriving companies. The code applies for smoke outside a structure, odor or carbon monoxide calls inside a structure with no signs of sickness, downed wires without fire and other calls with no life threat or illness, the policy says. 

Code 3 response applies to Detroit's EMS and is issued for non-life-threatening emergency response calls. In those cases, units must comply with all state and local traffic laws, the policy notes.

Jones said the shift has not impacted average medical response times — which are about eight minutes — because the teams are still responding Code 1 to building fires and life-threatening medical runs, which is what the department measures.

"It's time to move this department into the 21st century. This is happening all across the nation," said Jones, noting several major cities have similar policies. "It was the right thing to do, and I completely, wholeheartedly stand by it."

Arizona comparison

In Phoenix, the fire department has used a similar driver safety procedure for its engine, ladder, ladder tenders and rescue vehicles since 2004. Capt. Kenny Overton of the Phoenix Fire Department said the main goal has been to keep everyone safe when responding to emergency calls. 

When the dispatcher takes an emergency call, he or she determines how the call is categorized, Overton said. Service calls are given a lower-priority Code 2, while more serious calls, such as a house fire, are categorized as Code 3.

“When we have an emergency to respond to, we want to respond expediently,” Overton said. “We also need to operate in a safe manner so we don’t become part of the emergency.

"For instance, just because a call is dispatched Code 3 doesn’t mean we can go 100 miles per hour. When there’s an emergency response, the maximum is 10 over the speed limit.”

Opposing views

Nevin argued during Detroit's council session on Monday that the move is designed to "manipulate data" to make it look as if the city responding to fewer emergency runs and said the union was never consulted prior to the policy being put in place.

"They are slicing and dicing responses, how many responses and how we respond," he said. "As a 32-year veteran of the City of Detroit, I'm not going to allow that to happen. I don't care who it offends."

The union has a slogan that says "you can count on us," Nevin told the council. But the new policy sends a message to the public that "when seconds count, we're minutes away," he said.

"What they are asking us to do is turn the lights and sirens off. We might as well take the lights off and put Good Humor bells on the rig," he said.  "They are putting us in this pigeonhole Code 2 so they can show runs are going down."

Jones countered that Nevin's assertion is "foolish" and has no rationale. Jones added he's offered to meet with the union to discuss any concerns they have with the run classifications, but he's not willing to scrap it.

"It (the response policy) does nothing to the metrics and data that we collect," Jones said. 

Nevin pointed out several incidents in which the codes have gone out one way but should have been classified differently. He shared the audio with The Detroit News and also said he's played it for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. 

Several calls in recent days dispatched as Code 2 include an individual threatening to jump from an overpass, wires down or on fire and a transformer on fire. There also was a call over a fire alarm call from the MGM Grand Detroit, according the audio. 





"This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard of in my life," Nevin said of the policy. "This is over-the-top stupid."

Jones acknowledged Monday that there have been some dispatching mistakes but none have resulted in any injuries and "every day, we're getting better."

"They can pull runs out ... and say 'this should have been that and that should have been this.' I can pull out 1,000 that have been responded to properly without an accident," he said. "There's gonna be mistakes but we're not going to unnecessarily kill someone because we went lights and sires when we didn't need to."

Mayor vows a close look

Duggan's spokesman, John Roach, said in an email that the new policy was imposed as a department-level decision.

The mayor, he said, is "going to look very closely at this issue and will be meeting later this week with Commissioner Jones and Mike Nevin to discuss it."

Council member Janee Ayers, who is vice chair of the council committee, posed several questions to the fire administration during Monday's session. Among them, she inquired about the city's liability risk in implementing the protocol and the impact of mislabeling non-emergencies.

In a response filed later Monday, Jones wrote the liability "lies in not implementing a policy of this nature."

Jones noted there were 94 crashes involving 10 employees in 2015 with $766,504 in associated vehicle and personnel costs. In 2016, there were 58 crashes involving 11 employees and $772,710 in associated costs. The totals, he noted, don't factor in legal costs.

Ayers also asked Jones to specify how the new "non-emergent run" policy differs from a controversial "go-easy" policy that had been in place in the 1990s.

The old policy, he said, was designed to have responders determine if lights and sirens were necessary after arriving on the scene while the new policy seeks to make that call earlier. 

"In other words, the new policy, based on coding of calls, mandates that all calls are dispatched either lights and sirens for Code 1 responses, and no lights and sirens for Code 2 responses," Jones wrote.

"It is more effective and prudent to properly send employees from the initial dispatch. Firefighters still have the discretion to upgrade to a lights and sirens response, or to downgrade to a 'go easy,' no-lights-and-sirens response as information develops from the scene."

Ayers said she's spoken with fire department staff, and many are not in favor of the change. The council's subcommittee will review the issue next week.

"Whenever a citizen calls 911, it is of the utmost concern for them," she said. "What I don't want is for our first responders to be in a situation where they are coming no lights, no siren to a scene citizens called them for, and it looks like there is no concern. I don't think we're attacking this the right way."

Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.