Hockeytown Cafe Blaze Showed Potential Risk In Fire Department Cuts
The drama and potential danger behind the cutbacks in the Detroit Fire Department played out this week in the fire that has temporarily closed the Hockeytown Café.
The rigs that responded to the fire at one of downtown’s most popular entertainment spots came from distant locations because units that are stationed nearby were either busy at other fires, or closed.
No one was injured in the fire, which took place Tuesday night when the café was not open. But fire union officials said Wednesday the incident demonstrated their contention that the cutbacks ordered by the Bing administration are too severe, and jeopardize the safety of residents and visitors.
In fact, in a noteworthy coincidence, the Hockeytown blaze broke out just hours after the Detroit Fire Fighters Association had filed a lawsuit against the city, asking a Wayne County Circuit Court judge for a permanent injunction against the cutbacks, which eliminated nearly half of the department’s fire rigs on some days.
“Simply put, city residents and fire fighters, in particular, are at great risk because of this city decision,” the lawsuit charges.
On Tuesday, the Tigers were out of town, and downtown was quiet. The café was closed when the fire broke out in the kitchen around 10 p.m. On many nights when downtown is bustling, the café’s multiple floors and rooms are filled with patrons who are drinking, dancing and looking over the extensive hockey memorabilia.
In contrast to downtown, the fire department was busy at 10 p.m. Tuesday. Units from central Detroit were battling a stubborn, two-alarm fire in an abandoned apartment building at Byron and Webb. Engine 1, which is located on Montcalm, around the corner from the café, was at another westside fire.
Seven weeks ago, before the cutbacks, there were other three other rigs –-- engines 5, 10 and 8—stationed near Hockeytown, but they are now closed.
So to battle the Hockeytown fire, the department had to reach all the way to the City Airport neighborhood for one engine. It is seven miles away.
The rescue squad arrived from the area south of the Poletown plant, nearly five miles away.
Another engine came from Rohns and E. Warren, 7.5 miles distant. The two closest rigs that responded are stationed at Mt. Elliott and E. Lafayette, next to Elmwood Cemetery, a three-mile drive from downtown.
Dan McNamara, president of the fire union, said a response from such distant units for a fire at Hockeytown when it is jammed with customers could be a catastrophe. He said Mike Ilitch, whose company runs the café, and fellow downtown moguls Peter Karmanos Jr. and Dan Gilbert need to understand what is at stake with the fire department cuts.
“Even when the place was closed, if it wasn’t for the quick and professional work of the crews that were there, this could have been a disaster."
He added: “Downtown is the zone the department is supposed to protect the best, even with the cutbacks, and they can’t even do that.” McNamara said.
Bing spokeswoman Naomi Patton said the administration does not comment on pending litigation. Fire Commissioner Donald Austin said with the permission of the mayor’s office, he would talk about the cutbacks in general, but that permission was not available Wednesday night.
The fire department cutbacks are the result of the city financial crisis that has slashed spending in every department as the Bing administration works with the state on the consent agreement that is designed to stabilize city finances.
In the new fiscal year, fire department's overall budget was cut by $23.5 million, to $160 million.
Commissioner Austin said last month that because of the cuts, he can no longer call in up to 70 fire fighters on overtime to staff the number of rigs the department previously activated every day.
“We’re trying to do the best we can, within the budget restraints, Austin said.
Before the cuts, the department had 66 rigs officially active, but officials would “brown out” several units every day for manpower and budget reasons. This past Saturday, McNamara said the department had 38 units in service. The number changes daily.
In its lawsuit, the fire union said in two recent fires, three handicapped residents died in homes located near closed engine companies. In another fire, two physically disabled people were injured in a similar situation.
While it is impossible to prove those victims would have been saved if the nearby units had been operating, the tragedies put the cutbacks in sharp relief.
Despite the city’s population loss over the past 60 years, Detroit proportionally has one of the busiest departments in the nation, largely because of the numerous arson fires and frequent fires in the city vast number of abandoned buildings. The city has an average of 35 fires every day.
In the interview last month, Austin admitted it would be difficult to know every day precisely how many units to activate because of the unpredictable way fire break out.
At a community meeting July 10, Austin told citizens he accepted the reality that the department must live within the city’s means, and he pledged to do the best he could with the money available.
He also admitted, in a comment notable for its candor, that “I go to bed every night praying I don’t wake up to a disaster.”
The fire union used that quote at the top of the lawsuit it filed Tuesday.