DETROIT, MI – Dirty, hot and sweaty from battling blazes in the city, Detroit firefighters are returning to firehouses without enough soap, cleansers, hand towels — or even toilet paper.
Firefighters at multiple Detroit firehouses say there’s a shortage of supplies, describing measures from saving napkins to pooling money to buy paper products and cleaning supplies.
Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin said the department is trying to rectify the situation, implementing a new purchasing and inventory system to get a better handle on needs at each firehouse. He said chief officers at the firehouses should be the first go-to point for firefighters in need of supplies.
“It’s inappropriate, and we’re doing our best to understand what their needs are,” Austin said. “It ain’t a small issue if you’re sitting on the toilet if you don’t have toilet paper.”
The Detroit Fire Department official in charge of supplies said a temporary lag caused by a change in purchasing led to a dip in station stockpiles in July, but that supply levels are near or at normal levels at most stations.
But firefighters say the products they need still aren’t making it to fire station kitchens and bathrooms, forcing them to buy the products themselves. Many said the issue started well before July.
The city acknowledged supply-chain issues during contract arbitration with Detroit Fire Fighters Association IAFF Local 244 in 2011.
“The conditions we live in continue to be horrible,” said Daniel McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association. “We’re dirty and unhygienic for 24 hours, unless we do it ourselves. All of the firehouses in the city are very short of these necessary items. It’s, ‘Here’s what you get,’ and that’s it.”
Other communities in metro Detroit are improving their fire departments — in addition to keeping them well-stocked, department officials said.
“If they’re going to be performing at the highest levels we’re expecting them to, they should be comfortable in the fact that they’re coming back to a station, when they go to take a shower, they have soap, they have hot water, and we have cleaning supplies,” said Warren Fire Commissioner Wilburt (Skip) McAdams
Detroit firefighters insist that’s not happening at their stations. When asked about the supply shortage near dinnertime recently, Capt. Mark Kossarek with Ladder 23 on Detroit’s east side pulled a neatly folded, white paper towel — his napkin from lunch — out of his pocket.
“I knew we were short, so I wanted to make it last longer,” he said.
A couple of miles away, Detroit Engine 58 firefighter Jim Plieth said co-workers pitched in money and bought additional, mega-size containers of cleaners from a company going out of business a couple of months ago.
The 17-year firefighter said the station doesn’t have a problem getting degreaser and disinfectant from the city — mainly to clean up the oil leaking from the trucks.
But it runs short on other cleaners, paper products and hand soap regularly. He said most stations are paying for some of those supplies with their “paper fund,” a fund to which firefighters contribute $10 per paycheck — $320 per paycheck at Plieth’s station, with 32 firefighters.
“It used to buy a daily newspaper and extras — pans and stuff,” said Plieth, who managed his station’s fund for about four years. “Now, it morphed into hand towels and stuff. After you go to the bathroom, it’d be nice to wipe your hands — and not use your pants.”
The Detroit fire official in charge of supplies for each station, Nathaniel Tobi, said the July lag happened when the city changed the purchasing process to better track and analyze what supplies are needed.
“I can see their frustration, but you also have to understand, we can’t just go buy what we want,” Tobi said. “We have to go to purchasing, and purchasing has to wait on vendors.”
Walking through the Fire Department’s warehouse at Eastern Market, Tobi pointed out racks of supplies — turnout gear, cleaning tools and boxes of toilet paper, Simoniz degreaser and Ajax cleanser among them.
“When you run out, you can come back and get some more,” he said, blaming the complaints on firefighters angry about pay and manpower cuts.
That rings hollow with firefighters such as Kossarek, using his makeshift napkin for both lunchtime subs and dinnertime chicken and ribs.
“Him having all that there and not giving it to us isn’t doing any good in the field,” he said.
Having proper supplies in fire stations allows firefighters to concentrate on fighting fires and saving lives, officials in other departments say.
“Giving them proper cleaning supplies and equipment is very important, and we provide that the best we can,” said Waterford Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Finkbeiner. The department took over fire services for Pontiac last year and used a $600,000 state grant to upgrade the city’s fire stations. “You can’t expect them to perform their jobs without providing them with the proper equipment. That includes a safe, comfortable station. They live there 24 hours a day, and they take great pride in taking care of their home, and we give them the necessary tools to do that.”
Highland Park Fire Chief Derek Hillman said he would personally buy supplies if his firefighters were short on necessities. He admits that in a city in which the newest, $350,000 fire truck was donated by a resident who won the lottery this year, there have been supply issues in the past. But those were mainly because of slow order deliveries, he said.
The new Highland Park fire station — being built with American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds — broke ground in September and is slated to open in August — fully stocked, Hillman said.
“The city’s never not supplied us,” he said.
Firefighters often collect donations from the public to support charities such as March of Dimes. It is not known whether such donations are acceptable to help firefighters at each station with their supplies.
Austin said he’ll lean on station chiefs to stay on top of supply availability. One solution may be to have a firefighter on light duty drive a truck full of supplies from the warehouse to firehouses, as long as the firefighters union agrees, he said.