Fire union questions response to two-alarm blaze

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
Firefighters work a blaze at a commercial building on Puritan at Linwood in Detroit on Tuesday.

Detroit — Firefighters' response to a two-alarm blaze that tore through a vacant building Tuesday morning on the city's west side became the latest battle between the fire union and the department on how personnel is dispatched.

The fire was reported at about 11 a.m. on the 2600 block of Puritan at Linwood, said Dave Fornell, deputy commissioner of the Detroit Fire Department. He described the vacant, 200-by-400 square foot building as being in a "partial state of collapse," with a roof and two walls crumbling because of the fire. 

More than 50 firefighters responded to the scene, and efforts were focused on preventing the building from becoming more of a safety threat. One firefighter became dehydrated at the scene and required treatment but was otherwise OK, said Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones.

At issue, according to Mike Nevin, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, is that a commercial box alarm should have been used, which would have routed more personnel to the scene than the box alarm that went out. 

A box alarm sends three engines, one truck, one squad and one chief to the scene; a commercial box alarm sends four engines, two ladder trucks, one squad and two battalion chiefs.

Jones said dispatchers learned of the fire from firefighters who were on their way from another scene. That fire was on Whitmore. 

"They believed that they could handle it ... with three engines, a ladder and them being on the scene already," said Jones, referring to the firefighters who reported the blaze. "Dispatch sent a commercial box ... and the chief overrode that and asked for a second alarm."

Nevin said that dispatchers have been ordered to not send commercial box alarms. Jones, though, said that isn't the case. 

In the end, a second alarm was sent to the scene, making for six engines, two ladders, two squads and two battalion chiefs. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the union sent a request for a special conference to fire department leadership and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan regarding the department's new policy for incident response, which gives personnel more leeway on whether and when to deploy lights and sirens while fighting fires, commercial box alarms, payroll records and other issues.

The union is trying to schedule the meeting by the end of the month.

Jones said Wednesday that he's fine meeting but again disputed the assertions that commercial box alarm requests had been altogether eliminated, and that they weren't called for during Tuesday's fire.

The Detroit Fire Department sent The News an audio recording of the dispatches regarding Tuesday's fire response. Three times between 10:53 a.m. and 10:58 a.m. a commercial box alarm was requested, per the recording.

Near the end of the dispatch, a chief orders a second alarm. That overrode the order for the commercial box alarm, Jones said, and it was the two alarms that fought the fire from there.

A second version of the recording, provided by the union, starts earlier and goes on for four minutes before the commercial box alarm is called for. Twice, the dispatcher sends a commercial box alarm. Then a chief orders the second alarm, overriding the commercial box alarm.

Nevin, after listening to the union's version of the recording, said "this is actually worse than I imagined," described the initial response to the fire as disorganized and a "nightmare."

Nevin acknowledges that a commercial box alarm was eventually called for, but he attributed that to possible confusion on the part of the dispatcher.

"That woman did that on accident," Nevin said. "She got confused. She was following orders, but it got hairy and she went back to her old ways.

"They should have automatically called for the commercial box alarm," Nevin continued. By the time that did happen, he said, "it was already too late."