Detroit council members question new fire codes amid union outcry
Detroit — Members of City Council are questioning whether a controversial new policy that treats some city fire runs as lower priority is warranted amid concerns over its rocky implementation.
Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones led a presentation Monday on the policy he put in place in August that has emergency dispatchers coding runs as emergent and non-emergent, a classification that now deploys crews to some scenes without lights and sirens.
Jones instituted the protocol to protect residents and firefighters, saying disregarding traffic signals and speed limits with the activation of lights and sirens for every single run — even when it's not urgent — is dangerous. But the city's fire union has criticized the move as a "public safety nightmare," saying that runs are repeatedly being dispatched improperly.
"I feel like this could create more issues than it's actually resolving," Detroit Councilwoman Janee Ayers said during the council's Public Health and Safety subcommittee meeting. "When I call 911, it's because whatever is happening is an emergency for me. I expect to see lights an sirens because it's an emergency.
"The narrative could be that the neighborhood is not important. You all know that's the trending thing right now."
Jones and fire administrators said Monday that the new rules, which dispatch fire runs as Code 1 and Code 2, depending on urgency, were put in place because he "cares deeply" about the safety of firefighters and residents.
Code 1, he noted Monday, applies to calls that pose an immediate threat to life and property. Runs are designated Code 2 for non-life-threatening situations or when the department receives information and subsequently determines a call doesn't warrant an urgent, lights and siren response, Jones said.
"Code 2 does not mean take your time. It means respond immediately, but it does mean the use of lights and sirens aren't warranted for this particular run. It means you should respond expeditiously," Jones said. "What we want to prevent is creating an emergency while responding to an emergency. If we never get there, we won't be able to address the emergency."
The response time for a Code 1 run is four minutes from the time of dispatch for the first engine to arrive on the scene. Code 2 has no recommended response time, fire officials told the committee on Monday.
Detroit Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. raised issues with the implications of a dispatcher making the wrong call.
"If a call comes out and the 911 operator interprets this as a Tier 2 ... and it's actually a Tier 1 and my million-dollar house burns down, then what?" McCalister said. "... That could be a possible liability because the engine did not get there in a reasonable time. That's the issue I have with that."
The fire administration held up other "benchmark cities," including Boston, St. Louis, Miami-Dade and Phoenix, during its Monday presentation that they say have similar policies.
Jones and his staff noted the department receives 400 to 500 requests for fire-related incidents per week. About 50 percent, they contend, are non-life-threatening.
Detroit Fire Fighter Association President Mike Nevin argues fire crews are being dispatched without lights and sirens to downed wires, occupied apartment buildings and even a recent double homicide with an arson fire.
Jones and Mayor Mike Duggan have defended the new system as "sound policy." Jones reiterated Monday that there have been some errors, but that he stands behind the policy.
On Monday, Nevin commended council members pushing back against the policy that he contends "will prove deadly results."
"For Mayor Duggan to continue to rubber-stamp this administration's fraudulent leadership after my numerous personal attempts to professionally resolve concerns is a shameful disgrace of ignorant neglect and further proof (Duggan) is becoming either out of touch or not concerned with Detroit’s public safety issues," Nevin told The News.
In response, Duggan, in a released statement, noted that more than 10,000 times a year, the city's fire trucks are traveling at a high rate of speed to a location "they know is highly unlikely to be an emergency."
"Each one of those runs places pedestrians and motorists and the firefighters themselves at unnecessary risk," Duggan said. "I fully support the decision by the professional leadership of the fire department to respond to emergencies on an emergency basis and non-emergencies on a non-emergency basis, as many other cities in America are now doing."
In 2017, the department had 17 firefighter-involved crashes, fire officials told council members Monday.
Ayers questioned whether 17 crashes is enough to warrant the change and came down on the department for failing to provide a cost-benefit or risk analysis on the new policy.
Detroit Deputy Fire Chief Robert Shinske said he believes that even one crash is too many.
"There were 17 times when the Detroit Fire Department was called to go somewhere because someone needed our help. We didn't make it there. Not only didn't we go help, but we caused another emergency scene," he said. "It's not acceptable."