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Union chief: Detroit Fire Department in 'utter chaos'

Detroit Fire Department headquarters.

The head of Detroit’s firefighters union says the department is in “utter chaos” after new overtime restrictions came down this week.

City officials acknowledge the situation is difficult, but say it’s under control.

Union chief Dan McNamara says the drastic overtime restrictions—announced by memo to firefighters earlier this week--will basically cripple a fire department that’s already understaffed.

On Wednesday and Thursday, one-third or more of Detroit’s fire companies were “browned out.”

McNamara says the situation is “spinning out of control.”

“People are going less protected than ever before in this city,” he said Thursday. “There’s no way the Detroit Fire Department can operate like this at all.”

McNamara says the inevitable result is that engine companies won’t be able to respond to fires quickly. And even when they do get there, they’ll have less support.

But top city officials deny things will spiral out of control. They say by analyzing data, using “best practices,” and managing overtime, they can deal with the situation.

“We’re using data, and we’re using a lot of expertise to be able to assess on a daily basis how to deploy the assets that we have,” said Detroit Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis.

Fire Commissioner Donald Austin says current staffing mandates and contract rules make it very hard to keep the department’s overtime budget in check.

“I have about 21 percent of my 800-plus firefighters available to work on any given day,” Austin said. “If my current staffing is 240 to keep 50 rigs open, that means I have to hire 40 people [as] backfill, through overtime.”

“People can take time off from their regular work schedule…based on them being sick, them being injured on duty, vacation time. I’m not trying to say that they’re abusing anything. What I’m saying is they have multiple ways that they can be off work," he said.

Austin acknowledges his department is understaffed “as a whole,” but says “the city doesn’t have the money to staff anymore.”

But he insists that if “everybody comes to the table,” he can manage overtime costs and ensure reasonable response times.

These cuts come on top of plans to cut 164 city firefighters, although Bing has said the city should be able to retain more than 100 of them, at least temporarily, through a federal grant.

Detroit firefighters have had some tough nights in recent weeks, withmultiple blazes breaking out within hours in some hotspots, especially on the city’s heavily blighted east side.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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