Detroit to audit fire department after suspected drunken driving incidents

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is launching an environmental audit of the Detroit Fire Department after two suspected drunken driving incidents this week, one in which a sergeant crashed a department vehicle.

A significant reduction of on-site leadership during the pandemic has led to a "very serious problem," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said during a press conference Tuesday.

Detroit Fire Department Executive Fire Commissioner Eric Jones, right, speaks during a press conference at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters, in Detroit, March 2, 2021.

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"We don't know the extent of the problem," the mayor said. "We're not here to focus on who is to blame, we're focused on how to solve it."

Duggan vowed the city will provide mental health services for city firefighters who have endured additional strain in recent years after being cross-trained as medical first responders. 

"I've had some people tell me it's limited to a few firehouses. I've seen people anonymously without any specifics on TV say it's everywhere, but the truth is we don't know," he added. "And the only way to find out is to run an environmental audit, in which people come forward confidentially across the city."

Duggan said EMS does 58,000 ambulances runs each year, while firefighters make 25,000 fire runs. Firefighters also make 15,000 medical runs per year as medical first responders.

Detroit started its Medical First Responder program in 2014. Before then, Detroit was one of the only major fire departments in the country without cross-trained firefighters. Detroit deployed its medical first responder companies over a two-and-a-half-year transition.

Duggan said Detroit didn't ramp up an employee assistance program fast enough. "The fact that we didn't move earlier contributed to this. What made it worse, without a doubt, was when COVID hit."

The audit will be led by Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallet, the former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Mallet, the son of a former Detroit police officer and grandson of a former deputy chief, said he's aware of the "depth of the commitment and toll it takes."

"We're going to approach this in an honorable fashion," Mallet said. "To do so in a non-confrontational manner."

Fire Commissioner Eric Jones added Tuesday that a two-pronged investigation has been launched into the two suspected DUI incidents, which were unrelated.

A criminal investigation is being handled by the Detroit Police Department, he said, and an internal investigation is being handled by the fire department. 

"We are going to proceed down the line, making sure that those members involved have the due process," Jones said. "We're going to work with the union to make sure that we hold the people that were involved accountable and do everything we can to make sure that we don't have repeated instances of these incidents."

Detroit firefighters from Engine 32 prepare to go back into the building at the scene of a fire at the Parkview Place Apartments in Detroit on Jan. 10, 2021.

Additionally, Jones said he and his leadership team will become "fixtures" at Detroit firehouses and provide additional support services. Duggan said command staff also will be returning to on-site work assignments full-time and Mallet is expected to return in 30 days with a longer-term program.

Alcohol or substance abuse will not be tolerated in Detroit firehouses, Jones said. 

"I'm profoundly disappointed over the incidents that have occurred over the past week. This is not reflective of the Detroit Fire Department as a whole, but we must address it," he said. "Our firefighters and medics are heroes and they deserve our respect, especially given all the additional challenges and stressors they have faced so professionally during COVID.

"However, they know they must be subject to more scrutiny because the lives of others are in their hands every day," Jones said.

Detroit Fire Fighters Association President Tom Gehart said the union supports a zero-tolerance policy in the workplace, also stressing the need for an effective employee assistance program.

Firefighters, he said, have had to do more with less amid the chaotic spread of COVID-19.

"While not an excuse, the recent events that we addressed today only reveal and underscore the terrible emotional costs of our terrible, relentless work," he said. 

Ed Kelly, secretary general of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the challenges Detroit is facing are societal issues being magnified because of the job.

"The stresses we face, the pressure we're under, takes a toll on our behavioral health," Kelly said. "We see it all throughout society with alcohol, drug abuse. These challenges don't have an easy solution but we owe it to each other to be there for each other."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.