Duggan, fire chief defend new Detroit fire codes as 'sound policy'

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Detroit firefighters vent the roof of a house on fire in the 13600 block of Liberal, between Reno and Schoenherr.  The Detroit News first reported last week that the department is no longer using lights and sirens on all of its runs.

Detroit — The city's fire union says a new policy that treats some Detroit fire runs as lower priority is creating a "public safety nightmare," dispatching crews to downed wires, occupied apartment buildings — and even a double homicide with an arson fire early Sunday — without lights and sirens.

Despite the criticism, Detroit's fire commissioner and Mayor Mike Duggan are standing behind the measure they regard as "sound policy" designed to protect the lives of firefighters and residents.

Detroit Fire Fighter Association President Mike Nevin on Monday reiterated his concern over the policy implemented late last month by Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones, noting dozens of runs improperly dispatched over the weekend. Namely, a double shooting on the city's west side in which one victim was set ablaze, he said. 

"This is downright dangerous. They are rolling the dice with people's lives," Nevin said. "We're going to pull up on something that is too far gone and dire. A cardiac arrest won't wait for anybody."

Jones admitted there have been some coding errors, but said he stands behind the policy and it's staying in place. 

"Humans are involved, and there are going to be mistakes with any new policy. There were mistakes on dispatching of runs prior to the policy, and it's a constant improvement process," he said. "No one can point to anyone dying because of implementation of this policy. We're going to do our best to protect the citizens of the city of Detroit. It's just that simple."

The Detroit News first reported last week that the department is no longer using lights and sirens on all of its runs.

The strategy instead 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.

The policy, which 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.

Jones said disregarding traffic signals and speed limits with the activation of lights and sirens for every single run — even when it's not urgent — is too dangerous.

"This policy will not be suspended. I will not suspend the protection of the citizens of the city of Detroit and the Detroit firefighters," he said. "I won't allow it."

Nevin appeared Monday before Detroit City Council's Public Health and Safety committee to alert members of multiple calls classified as the lower-priority Code 2 that he contends should have been labeled more emergent and said the administration needs to "alert the public to what's going on."

"It continues to happen all day and all night," Nevin said, noting calls that went out as Code 2 for Dumpster fires next to buildings, occupied senior homes and apartments and downed wires. "It's an absolute public safety nightmare."

Among the calls was a double shooting on Monterey just after 3 a.m. Sunday. A dispatcher sent Engine 40 to the scene at 3:22 a.m., saying authorities and EMS had already responded to a report of a shooting and asked the fire company to "check for a fire," according to audio of the run released to The Detroit News. 

Dispatch confirmed that EMS responded for a shooting and that police reported "a civilian with severe burns on the scene." 

"The person who took the call decided it was not a priority 1," Nevin told The News. "A double homicide, with a fire."

William Harp, the union's vice president, added that the non-emergent response could have resulted in a total loss for the house and put the evidence needed to solve the crime in jeopardy. 

"The policemen don't know truly when the fire's out. I don't think they should have to take on that responsibility," Harp said. "After we know there's been a fire, we know there's been a criminal event, two people have been murdered, one of them set on fire. I don't know, you tell me without being there how extensive the fire was."

Jones countered that the assertion of the scene being compromised based on the Code 2 response was "ridiculous."

The initial call for EMS, he said, had been dispatched as a Code 1. Once crews arrived, it was determined by EMS and police that the individuals were already deceased and that the fire was out. A ladder truck, he said, then brought a fan to help clear out the smoke.

"It's easy to sensationalize and fear monger and scare the public, but I know what happened here," said Jones, noting the Code 2 in this case was appropriate. "This is a murder investigation. Our response did not contribute to the fatality of the individuals."

Nevin told council members Monday that he met last week with Duggan and Jones to convey his worries. The union is now looking into legal action on behalf of the city's firefighters and the public, he said. 

"We're not getting there when we're supposed to get there. The mayor needs to let people know. It's his job," Nevin told council members. "Mr. Duggan, come out with it. Tell everybody exactly what's going on so they know how they are protected. Honestly, it's bad public safety business."

Duggan's spokesman John Roach, told The News that the mayor believes the policy is sound. But, as with any new regulations, "implementation will be monitored closely and additional training will be provided to staff as appropriate to ensure its success."

"The mayor believes that any time a citizen's life or safety is believed to in immediate danger, the fire department should be dispatched as a Priority One and firefighters should activate their lights and sirens on their way to the scene," Roach wrote in an email. "He also believes that when no such known threat to human safety exists, firefighters should not be put in a position of potentially endangering public safety on the roads by traveling at high speeds."

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

The fire commissioner said he's not willing to undo the policy but remains willing to meet with the union to discuss it, and if legal action arises, he'll defend it.

Detroit City Councilwoman Janee Ayers told Nevin Monday that council doesn't have the authority to suspend the policy. Any changes will have to come from Duggan or the fire commissioner. 

"However, I believe it is our responsibility, particularly the Public Health and Safety committee, to review policies and nuances that we find questionable or threatening to the health and safety of our citizens and our first responders," she said. 

Councilman Scott Benson, who chairs the committee, said the issue will be revisited in two weeks.

"Every life in the city of Detroit matters, and we have to make sure that the policies we are implementing highlight that," he said.