Detroit fire commissioner promotes new resources for first responders

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Interim Fire Commissioner Chuck Simms wrapped up his first tour of the city's firehouses Monday, where he listened to concerns from first responders and explained improved health and wellness resources available to staff.

Simms said he's making good on his promise to address morale and provide more support during the global COVID-19 pandemic and vowed: "We’re going to restore the trust in the community."

Interim Fire Commissioner Chuck Simms stands inside Engine 9 in Detroit on Feb.  28, 2022.

His tour follows a slew of incidents over the last few years involving intoxicated employees and a citywide audit that recommended the city bolster funding and support for the fire department's peer-to-peer counseling program.

The Detroit News followed Simms on the last stop of his tour, Engine 9 on Detroit's east side, where firefighters showcased a need for better equipment and upkeep of fire stations and advocated for a facility dedicated to aid first responders. Simms, a 35-year veteran of the department, has been touring fire stations since being appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan in January.

He said the tours will continue.

"During the pandemic, members in the field felt a little detached from management and that's why I'm here, to ensure that they know they have our support and we're here to uplift them and address any concerns or issues they have," Simms said.

He added that firefighters expressed concern over addressing their health and wellness, and a lack of "Transparency or communication and just like any other job – they just want to know and hear what's the future for the fire department. This is about closing that communication gap."

Detroit's fire department, the largest in the state, has more than 1,150 employees. The department has a crossover program that trains firefighters in emergency medical services. So far, eight members successfully completed crossover training and that will be a priority going forward, Simms said.

"In the near future, you will see just one department and it will be EMS or fire combined," he said. "Right now, anyone who's hired after July (of last year), will be crossed trained to enhance the services to the citizens of Detroit. When you have a medical issue and you have a fire company around the corner, they are going to get there a lot faster and will be really beneficial for the city."

Robin Floyd, the department's new wellness specialist, stood beside Simms to share resources offered through their employee assistance program including counselors, mental health sessions, healthy eating, fitness, financial management, childcare and marital support, all of which are offered to spouses of first responders, too.

"We're here to support them and their family, who may need access to resources and the information and the key is consistency," said Floyd, who started the position in January. "We will build that bridge of communication for long-term support."

Simms replaces Eric Jones, who faced criticism from past union leaders who called for his ouster over controversial policies. Fire department staff cited morale and leadership concerns in a spring assessment.

City officials are conducting a national search for Jones' permanent replacement and hope to have a commissioner in place by the spring. Simms will be compared against national candidates but has full commissioner powers for the time as interim. His salary is $160,000. 

In March 2021, the city launched an environmental audit of the Detroit Fire Department after two suspected drunken driving incidents in one 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 at the time.

Interim Fire Commissioner Chuck Simms, center, talks to firefighters after being given a tour of Engine 9 in Detroit on Feb.  28, 2022. The 35-year-veteran of the Detroit Fire Department has been visiting firehouses to listen to the needs of firefighters.

Earlier this month, two DFD personnel were suspended after alcohol was found in a fire engine operator's urine when he was on duty. 

A lieutenant was suspended due to other factors, Simms added, including for allegedly allowing a fire engine to leave city limits.

The department's peer support network consists of one full-time employee, Lenette Woods, and volunteers who have to be pulled from their shifts or called from a list after a crisis. Its budget is $79,000. Boston's peer-to-peer effort is funded with nearly $700,000, the audit noted.

The report cites several traumas firefighters and EMS workers endure, including line of duty deaths, patient deaths and incidents involving children who've been hurt or killed.

The 25-question assessments found nearly 60% of workers voiced concerns over morale and leadership, scheduling, communication and employee recognition — and more than half were unaware of any employee assistance programs offered by the department.

About 60% of workers said they did not observe drinking or alcohol abuse among colleagues. Others said they had witnessed alcohol use, but it was a past practice.

Conversely, many "believe alcohol abuse remains a problem that needs a solution," according to the report.

Robert Distelrath, second deputy fire commissioner, said while the employee assistance program has existed over the years, it fell off following the city's bankruptcy in 2013 and is now in the process of being enhanced.

"It's a struggle and people are reluctant to ask for help," he said. "We're trying to be proactive and it's about consistency and transparency across seven departments."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_