FBI raided weed lobbyist in bribery probe involving ex-House Speaker Rick Johnson

Fire Department probes blaze, papers left at old training center

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Trash, potentially including sensitive records from the now-defunct training center, can be seen strewn around the building on West Warren and Lawton in Detroit on Dec. 30, 2018.

Detroit fire officials are investigating a suspicious fire at the department's former training center and whether sensitive records were left behind at the site.

The fire started about 2 p.m. Thursday at the Fire Department's abandoned training academy at Warren and Lawton on Detroit's west side. The fire originated on the second floor of the six-story building, said Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell. It took about 10 minutes to bring the blaze under control, he said.

What appears to be a city-owned vehicle parked in back of the former Detroit Fire Department training school building on West Warren and Lawton in Detroit on Dec. 30, 2018.

Although Fornell deemed the fire suspicious, he said it's unclear if it was the work of an arsonist, saying that the case remains under investigation. 

2nd Deputy Chief Charles Simms said allegations that sensitive information was left at the site, last used by the Fire Department in 2014, were being investigated.

"Today and tomorrow we will have staff out again to reassess the remaining records," Simms said.  "Any that are determined to have potential value to the department will be removed as well."  

The site was partially surrounded by tall, commercial chain-link fencing Sunday. A person in a municipal vehicle was parked in the back of the center, where no fencing prevented access to the building.

Detroit Fire Fighters Union president Mike Nevin said he told city officials, including Mayor Mike Duggan, Fire Commissioner Eric Jones and Police Chief James Craig, that sensitive personnel information has been lying around at the site.

"They were letting the building fall into disrepair. It was open to trespass,” Nevin said. “There were sensitive documents filling the entire property site.”

Representatives from the Mayor's Office and Police Department declined to comment Sunday.

Nevin said some documents included Social Security numbers, medical information of civilians and employees, run sheets, payroll and fire reports as well as arson reports and grievance sheets. He said he saw the paperwork on the site.

The documents, Nevin said, “are like kites flying all over the neighborhood. It’s a joke.”

Nevin has been critical of the department recently and the fire union has filed an unfair labor charge over the Fire Department's controversial response policy begun in August over the use of lights and sirens. Nevin has called the policy a "public safety failure."

Jones has said the former procedure of disregarding traffic signals and speed limits for nonemergency runs is unnecessarily dangerous.

Nevin with his attorney also has spoken out after Craig launched a criminal investigation after Nevin posted dispatch reports identifying witnesses on social media that Craig said put the witnesses in danger. The reports posted on Facebook, which showed police response time to a recent homicide, have since been removed.

Simms said the department has been out the site before the fire at the former training center.

The former Detroit Fire Department training school building on West Warren and Lawton in Detroit on Dec. 30, 2018.

"Regarding the records, DFD has had staff out to this facility on numerous occasions in the past year combing through records to remove any that may be sensitive or have any investigatory value to the arson unit," Simms said.

“All other documents will be removed from the building this week and securely transported to the incinerator to be destroyed under supervision."

Fornell said the building was turned over to the Detroit Building Authority about a year ago. It was boarded up and gated, and is no longer a Fire Department building, he said. 

Fornell added that “folks get in there, scrappers get in there” in a remote location.

Nevin said he was at the scene of the fire on Thursday. He then went back on Friday and found the building still open to trespass, he said. 

“They literally left it the way it was,” he said. 

Simms disputed Nevin's claim that the site has been left unsecured.

“The city secured the former academy building with padlocked fencing and boards when the Fire Department vacated it and has responded to all requests to have it re-secured since then," he said. "Crews will be out on Monday to make sure it is secured once more. "

Fornell said that within the last year and a half, the department moved records out of a separate warehouse on Lyndon on the city’s east side when it moved its dispatch operations to the public safety building.

“We had files we ended up moving to the (new) fire academy. Folks came in, went through the files and digitized them,” he said, adding fire prevention and arson files “and everything else was secure.”

“Legal files, inspections, fire investigations, those are under lock and key,” Fornell said. “They are still secure.”

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