Firefighters ignite the hood

Oct 1, 2003 at 12:00 am

News Hits has to hand it to the southwest Detroit firefighters. When the city periodically shut down fire companies in the area this summer, the men and women in red alerted the community.

“We educated the public about what is happening,” says firefighter Robert Shinske, the union steward for the 7th Battalion, which includes southwest Detroit.

A fire company is the crew that operates a piece of equipment, for instance a ladder truck or a truck ferrying fire hoses. When a fire company closes, another one must respond to fires in the area, increasing response time. Fires double in size every two minutes, says Shinske.

“It’s dangerous to citizens and to firefighters,” he says of the closures.

Summer vacations typically cause personnel shortages, but this is the first time in recent years that companies have been closed. One difference this year is that the new firefighters contract sets minimum staffing for companies. Consequently, the city periodically closed five fire companies. Two of the companies that closed are in southwest Detroit, the only city neighborhood that has had a population increase, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Ladder Four, which handles fire rescues in southwest Detroit, was closed for 10 non-consecutive days this summer, according to Shinske.

Howard Hughey, spokesperson for Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, says that personnel shortages did cause fire companies to be “temporarily deactivated.” But Hughey adds that, “There is a lot of strategy and methodology in determining which ones.”

When Core City Neighborhoods, a southwest Detroit neighborhood community development group, got wind of the firefighters’ concerns, the group met with Kilpatrick’s administration in July. The meetings helped keep one fire company open, says Shinske.

The city has not closed Ladder Four since the end of July; however, Engine 37, which is also in southwest Detroit, was closed periodically through August, says Shinske.

Senior Fire Chief Fred Schwartz says there haven’t been fire company closures in more than three weeks.

Shinske says the city needs to hire more firefighters to avoid future closures. He claims that there are many unfilled positions.

“Staffing is down,” says Hughey. “But we are aggressively moving to fill those positions.” Hughey also says that 20 additional firefighters will be ready for active duty in December. “After that, we still will have about 20 to 30 vacancies that need to be filled,” he says.

State Rep. Steve Tobocman, D-Detroit, who represents the southwest side, helped rally the community. He and several neighborhood groups will hold a press conference Friday, Oct. 3, to call attention to the fire company closures. Tobocman also had residents send 1,000 postcards of protest last week to Mayor Kilpatrick, the Detroit City Council and Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Tobocman says postcards were sent to Granholm to ask her to lobby the feds about changing Homeland Security funding rules. The funds are restricted to purchasing emergency equipment, says Tobocman, who wants the money also available to hire firefighters and other personnel.

But now that summer is over and the fire companies are open, why the fuss? Shinske says that when there is another shortage of firefighters — which he suspects might happen when hunting season begins this month — there are bound to be more fire company closures.

The press conference is scheduled for 10 a.m. at Engine 27, at 2080 Central.

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