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Detroit Fire Commissioner proposes letting vacant buildings 50% involved burn to the ground. Donald Austin asked to make cut in next year's budget.

Commissioner Donald Austin last June when he brought up the issue of tactics for vacant structure fires, saying he wanted a clear indication of a life hazard before entering. Click here for that story.

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Detroit Fireground Images from Dennis Walus

Donald Austin Jr., the Executive Fire Commissioner of Detroit, has some novel ideas to deal with a 15 percent cut in the 2012-2013 budget for his department. Austin told Tammy Stables Battaglia at Detroit Free Press, “I’ll give him every penny I can without cutting people”. But the commissioner does expect to lose firefighters through attrition.

Austin’s focus is on the major fire problem for Detroit, vacant structures. The city lost 200,000 residents in the past decade.

The commissioner’s ideas from Detroit Free Press:

• Allowing vacant homes that are more than 50% ablaze when firefighters arrive to burn to the ground, as long as no lives are in jeopardy. The approach isn’t feasible in high winds or other dangerous conditions, Austin said.

• Asking the U.S. Navy’s construction division — the Seabees — to raze 10,000 vacant and dilapidated homes.

• Creating a demolition unit in the Fire Department, much like the Tractor Company he created in Los Angeles that cut breaks around wildfires, maintained hillside fire roads and overhauled large industrial fires. Detroit’s crew would use heavy equipment to raze the remnants of newly burned buildings, he said.

Reducing the number of vacant homes and buildings, and in turn cutting the number of fires, would not only save money but improve the look of the city. Austin told the paper, “One reason people are not coming back to the city is because it looks like hell.”

Union president Dan McNamara doesn’t like the idea unless the structure is on a demolition list compiled by the city.

Last June Commissioner Austin also made headlines when he told firefighters he didn’t want them to enter vacant structures without a clear indication of a life hazard.

This news comes on the same day the documentary about the Detroit Fire Department, “Burn”, debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Above is video from Steve Redick’s trip to Detroit earlier this month.  Check out Steve’s books about the Chicago Fire Department.


Comments - Add Yours

  • Scooter

    Won’t that be something… I wonder how many dwellings “let burn” will spread to other occupied dwellings or tie up companies a lot longer keeping them from answering other emergency calls. God Help you guys in Detroit. Strike Da Box K

  • Steve

    Excellent decision, sounds like someone with common sense.

  • RJ(in florida)

    i sense a great–50% disturbance in the force

  • Former Chief

    Sounds like good ideas on the part of the Commissioner and the Union. I think there is a lot of room there for compromise as well. I’m not sure all are completely feasible, but they are thinking “outside of the box” under very dire circumstances. The Seabees coming in to demolish vacant structures is a great idea.

  • Bullets

    I like it, thinking outside the box, working with what you got

  • Anonymous


  • Legeros

    Everything old is new again. Hooks attached to ropes or chains were carried on fire apparatus in the hand-drawn days, and used to pull down buildings to create fire breaks. Blasting powder was used, or even as happened at the great fire of New Bern, NC, a locomotive helped pull down structures.

  • Capt. P

    You guys have to be kidding, I have made just as many grabs in vacants as I have in occupied dwellings…. What a way to get rid of the City and downsize the department…….

  • WillMega06

    Seabees, Can Do!!!!

  • JustSayin’

    Cap.P is right…

    When a city decreases, so should the FD.

    Over 50% involved and everything else is OK, then let it burn.

  • We’re Screwed

    My question to all the “I’ve made most of my grabs….” in vacants is have you ever been to Detroit? While on the face your experiences may seem similar, they are not.

  • Bill

    a demo company as part of the fire department won’t save any money. The cost of tearing down buildings isn’t in the actual demolition, it’s in the disposal. Especially in a city like Detroit with old houses that could have lead and asbestos, the environmentalists will go bonkers if they just pull it down and expect to dump it in a normal landfill. Even if they just pull it down and leave it, do you think the arsonist won’t torch a pile wood?

  • Capt. P

    To ” We’re Screwed” I’m not going to get into station or company battles of where I am from…(B.C.F.D.) been there done that, I have traveled to Detroit many times and not to squirrel on Devils night. I hope I assisted with your experience issue…. we are only a small urban City in comparison , but I beleive it is very similar as YOU put it.

    FTM-PTB Jim

  • Anonymous

    My size up would always be “49% involved”.

  • Balsliquem

    My size up would always be “49% involved”.

  • 8truck

    Sounds like a good idea but it will most likely come back to haunt them. From what I’ve seen in DFD it seems like the majority of the fires are either one extreme or the other, fully working or room and contents w/ extension. So will it really save anything, i’m not part of DFD so I couldn’t tell you.

  • We’re Screwed
  • Capt. P

    To ” We’re Screwed ” We all have opinions and that is what makes the job so awesome, after 25 years I make it a point that I learn somthing new every day, many times it comes from the newer members………..


  • RTP

    after thinking about this for a couple of days this clearly doesn’t make since. The fire department is already understaffed, over worked, lack of proper equipment, lack of ems units, etc. Now they want to spend money training fire fighters to operate heavy equipment, so now we have more manpower missing from the work force. Then we want to commit this manpower too tearing down houses? Doesn’t add up. Plus like I said before do away with the houses, what are the arsonist going to set on fire next? What about all the commercial structures sitting empty. No I don’t condone arson. How many times has the Packard Plant been on fire?