Detroit fire commissioner amends controversial 'lights and sirens' policy

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones

Detroit — The city's fire administration is walking back part of a controversial new policy that has firefighters responding to some runs without lights and sirens.

Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones said his team tweaked several categories within the system he put in place in August that classifies runs by two codes: one for emergent runs and the other for non-emergent calls. 

The Detroit News first reported the policy changes last month and a warning from the city's fire union that it could endanger lives.

From now on, Jones said firefighters will respond with lights and sirens to all calls for residential and commercial fire alarms, carbon monoxide and downed wires. The emergent, or Code 1, classification for those runs is a shift from the original policy language. Formerly crews were responding with a lower priority, or Code 2, unless smoke was visible for fire alarm calls, wires were sparking or arcing for downed lines, and if there were signs of illness or injury for carbon monoxide runs, Jones noted. 

"All fire alarms — residential or commercial — if it's sounding, if someone hears it, if it's sent to us by a monitoring company, we're going to go Code 1," Jones said. "We identified three categories that we moved back to Code 1. The substance of the policy wasn't going to change but I was open to moving around some of the categories."

Jones, however, has been firm in his position that he will not scrap the coding strategy that he contends is designed to protect firefighters and the public. Disregarding traffic signals and speed limits with the activation of lights and sirens for every single run — even when it's not urgent — is unnecessary, he said.

The department receives 400 to 500 requests for fire-related incidents per week and about 50 percent, the administration contends, are non-life-threatening.

The policy changes, which he said went into effect Wednesday, come amid multiple calls from the city's fire union to eliminate the new coding system on claims it's creating a "public safety nightmare" in Detroit.

Detroit Fire Fire Association President Mike Nevin said the changes aren't enough. 

"The fix is this: Go back to the way it was, and that's it. This Code 1, Code 2 ... this isn't a TV show. This is real life," he said. "Just because they are walking it back, that doesn't impress me. This should have never happened in the first place."

The union has pointed out dozens of runs that have been improperly dispatched in the weeks since the new rules rolled out. Nevin has cited "Code 2" runs to occupied apartment buildings, car wrecks and even a recent double homicide with an arson fire.

Nevin demanded that Jones be ousted during a Tuesday press conference outside of a home that was destroyed on the west side after a call was erroneously sent out as a Code 2. Jones agreed an error was made in that case and said that it would be the catalyst for policy refinements.

The fire administration and union sat down Wednesday for a special conference in an attempt to address issues of concern.

Jones contends he offered to identify run classifications "that they thought should be moved back to Code 1."

"They refused and didn't participate in that process," he said.

Nevin said the administration continues to decline the union's request to eliminate the policy. He's threatened that if it stays in place the union will pursue an unfair labor practice complaint and seek a court injunction to stop it. 

Duggan's spokesman, John Roach, has said Duggan supports the code system, which the city has regarded as "sound policy." On Thursday, Roach said the mayor had no additional comment.