Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones to depart as city seeks 'new direction'

Detroit's Fire Commissioner Eric Jones is leaving the department Jan. 14 as the city seeks a "new direction in leadership," Mayor Mike Duggan announced Thursday. 

Jones, 53, has led the department since October 2015, celebrating improved emergency response times and a decline in arson fires. He's also faced criticism from past union leaders who called for his ouster over controversial policies and his departure comes after fire department staff cited morale and leadership concerns in a spring assessment.

In a Thursday letter to all department employees titled "farewell," Jones thanked department staff for their professionalism, listed various achievements, and noted that "I accept responsibility for any failures."

Duggan, who just began his third four-year term as Detroit's mayor, said he will select someone to serve as interim fire commissioner before Jones departs. City officials will conduct a national search for Jones' permanent replacement and hope to have a commissioner in place by mid-year. 

"Eric has given more than three decades serving and protecting the citizens of Detroit, and I thank him for his service," Duggan said in a press release. "I wish him well."

Detroit Fire Department Executive Fire Commissioner Eric Jones will depart on Jan. 14. The city is seeking a new direction and intends to launch a national search for Jones' replacement.

Jones provided The Detroit News with a copy of the letter but declined further comment. Within it, he said he was proud of union contract negotiations that resulted in improved work schedules, increased wages and the merger of fire and medical services. 

"Thank you for working with me to make the department better. Thank you for having the patience as we improved the equipment, training, response time and prudently managed the budget," Jones wrote. 

"Unfortunately, my time as Detroit Fire Commissioner has reached the end of the road, and I must move on to the next chapter of my life," he added. "I will never forget the six wonderful years we've spent together, and I will always hold you in the highest esteem."

Duggan spokesman John Roach, in a text message, added: "The mayor appreciates the progress that has been made at the fire department under Commissioner Jones and he just feels that it is time for new leadership and direction."

Jones worked for the Detroit Police Department for 25 years before he retired in 2013, when he was assistant chief. Duggan first hired him as director of the Department of Building Safety, Engineering & Environmental Department in 2014 and then named him executive fire commissioner in 2015.

Detroit experienced decreased arson during Jones' tenure. He changed the department's strategy for dealing with Halloween-time arsons and burgeoned the department's investigative ranks, growing the arson division from a seven-person unit to a team of more than two dozen.

But Jones occasionally clashed with some longtime leaders of the Detroit Fire Fighter Association over policies, including one that called for dispatching some emergency runs at lower priority without lights and sirens. 

He also battled workplace culture issues, according to an assessment of the department city officials launched early last year after two incidents involving fire department employees drinking alcohol while on the job and driving work vehicles.

Jones described those incidents as "extremely disappointing." 

"We respond to runs and see the aftermath of drinking and driving," Jones said at the time. "So it's a betrayal to do that."

The city later surveyed department staff to understand their experiences at work, specifically to assess the level of leadership support that staff perceived was provided by the fire and EMS divisions and the Detroit Fire Department's executive leadership teams.

The audit found nearly 60% of fire department workers had voiced concerns over morale and leadership, scheduling, communication and employee recognition. More than half were unaware of existing employee assistance programs, according to the assessment. 

Officials recommended the department increase funding and support for its peer-to-peer counseling program and implement a behavioral health model similar to what's in place in other major cities such as Boston.

More than 80% of those interviewed did report feeling comfortable raising ethical issues. That was evidence for leadership, it noted, "that not every part of the culture is broken."

About 60% of workers said they did not observe drinking or alcohol abuse among colleagues. Still, the report found many employees "believe alcohol abuse remains a problem that needs a solution."

"Coupled with the fact that many respondents feel like the department does not provide sufficient flexibility to help balance work life and personal life it is clear, the necessity to provide more and better support to fire and EMS first responders is necessary," it noted. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on fire department workers who go out into the field on fire and medical calls, Detroit Fire Fighters Association President Tom Gehart said.

He said he hopes city leaders develop strategies to help employees deal with stress. 

Gehart said the union and Jones had a workable, not particularly adversarial, relationship. 

"He did a lot of good for the department," Gehart said. "I appreciated working with him and am sad to see him go. We wish him luck."

In announcing Jones' departure, Duggan touted progress he said the department made under Jones' leadership, including reduced emergency medical services response times and overhauling the department's fleet. 

A 2019 Detroit News investigation revealed that structure fires in Detroit had declined dramatically over a five-year span as a result of stepped-up arson investigations and fewer blighted buildings. Fire department data showed the number of annual structure fires in the city had declined 42% since 2014.

Jones credited the reduction to an aggressive blight elimination program, bolstered investigations, inspections as well as community education efforts and city block clubs. 

Under Jones, the city's fire department also pivoted from its longtime tradition of Angels Night patrols on the days leading up to Halloween in favor of an event coined "Halloween in the D," focused on passing candy to children.

Around Halloween, the city for decades had been overwhelmed with arson fires. In 1984, the Detroit Fire Department responded to 810 fires over a three-day span. 

But continued declines in recent years prompted Duggan in 2017 to shed the city’s Angel's Night moniker.

Last year, the night prior to Halloween saw only three building fires and Halloween had three more.

ckthompson@detroitnews.com