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Detroit fire to launch audit after back-to-back drunk driving incidents

City leaders are reflecting on the department’s policies following two incidents of drunk driving while on duty in just over one week


Miriam Marini
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — In just over a week, two incidents of drunk driving while on duty have occurred within the Detroit Fire Department, causing city leaders to reflect on the department’s policies and resources for firefighters amid higher levels of pressure and stress caused by the pandemic.

Mayor Mike Duggan announced a partnership with national firefighter leaders to help guide Detroit in finding a solution, including launching an independent environmental audit and a review of the department’s policies and employee assistance program.

“The men and women of the Detroit Fire Department are heroes. We depend on them every day to save our lives, and they’ve done a terrific job, but the people of the city of Detroit are entitled to know that the men and women they are counting on to come save them are free of the influence of alcohol or any other restricted substances,” Duggan said during a press conference Tuesday. “We’re not here to focus on who’s to blame, we’re focusing on how we’re going to solve it.”

On Feb. 21, a Detroit firefighter crashed into a woman’s parked car while responding to an emergency after he left a dinner party at the Engine 50 building on Houston Whittier Street. His blood-alcohol level was said to be more than the legal limit.

Then on Monday, a battalion chief was arrested after operating and crashing a department SUV into a wire fence while under the influence as he was responding to a vacant house fire on Joy and Livernois. An investigation is ongoing.

A factor that has given rise to these incidents, Duggan said, is the absence of onsite leadership during a time of heightened pressure. Given the health risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic, the health department advised leadership to pause visits to firehouses and much of leadership has been operating remotely.

“I just don’t want there to be any question, I take this very seriously. It’s not going to be tolerated,” Duggan said. “On the other hand, I have a responsibility to make sure there’s support for these firefighters, and we’re going to do that too.”

Beginning Tuesday, the city is taking four steps: Clarifying that working under the influence of any restricted substance is forbidden with zero tolerance on any department property; command staff will return to onsite work full time immediately; partner with the Detroit Fire Fighters Association and International Association of Fire Fighters to enhance the department’s employee assistance program; and launching an independent environmental audit.

“I’m profoundly disappointed over the incidents that have occurred in the past week. This is not reflective of the Detroit Fire Department as a whole. But we must address it,” Commissioner Eric Jones 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 about their fitness for duty, because the lives of others are in their hands, every day.”

As firefighters in Detroit have doubled as emergency medical responders in the last three years, the department’s workload has increased and added to the already heavy stress on first responders.

“Unless you’re a first responder, you can’t fully appreciate what it’s like for these men and women to be first on scene and have to perform life saving measures during and in this COVID environment,” Jones said. “So we are going to support them by significantly expanding our employee assistance program to make sure our brave men and women have access to all the support systems they need to process this added stress in a healthy and productive manner.”

The city is partnering with the Detroit firefighters union to better address members’ needs and decide how best they can provide support for firefighters through an enhanced comprehensive employee assistance program.

“When the grim work of the Detroit firefighters and medics has increased dramatically, requiring them to do more with less, as the chaotic and frightening COVID-19 virus has spread invisibly throughout our city,” said Tom Gehart, president of the Detroit Firefighters Association. “While not an excuse, the recent events that we address today only reveal and underscore the terrible emotional cost of our relentless difficult work.”

The city is also working with the International Association of Firefighters, which represents thousands of firefighters and paramedics throughout the United States and Canada, to make Detroit a national example.

Ed Kelly, general secretary-treasure of the IAFF, said the dependence issues plaguing firefighters is reflective of issues in society.

“What I can tell you is that the challenges that you’re facing here in Detroit, are not germane to Detroit,” Kelly said. “We, as firefighters are a microcosm of society, and the challenges that we have in our department here as the Detroit fire department are magnified because of the job that we do for the people of Detroit, the stresses that we face, the pressure that we’re under, takes a toll on our behavioral health.”

Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett is expected to produce a longer term plan that will include the results of the environmental audit and improved employee assistance program in 30 days.


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