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Detroit fire boss: Let some vacant buildings burn to ground to reduce manpower costs

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POSTED April 22, 2012 10:59 p.m.

DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Fire Department could adjust to a looming 15 percent budget cut by allowing some abandoned buildings burn to the ground, according to the city's top fire official.

Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin said his is creating three proposals for Mayor Dave Bing to consider when making deep reductions to the 2012-13 budget, likely to be below this fiscal year's $183 million. Detroit is going through a state-monitored budget overhaul under a deal reached between Gov. Rick Snyder and city officials, an alternative to a state-appointed emergency manager.

"I'll give (Bing) every penny I can without cutting people," said Austin, a former Los Angeles assistant fire chief who became head of Detroit fire operations last May.

Detroit stands out from other large U.S. cities and will need to take drastic steps to meet its service needs, he said.

"Name another city in the United States that lost 200,000 people in 10 years," Austin told the Detroit Free Press for a story Sunday, citing U.S. Census figures. "So we're in a unique position. And I believe it takes unique approaches to deal with situations that are not the norm."

Wide swaths of Detroit's once-teeming neighborhoods now consist of scattered occupied homes, surrounded by boarded-up structures, burned-out husks and weed-covered vacant lots.

One of Austin's proposals would allow vacant buildings to burn if they're more than 50 percent ablaze — as long as they're not a risk to inhabited structures and the weather is favorable. Austin said about 40 to 60 percent of the fires in Detroit are in vacant structures.

Another proposal is to ask the U.S. Navy's construction division, the Seabees, to level 10,000 vacant and dilapidated homes.

And a third is to create a demolition unit in the fire department, Austin said, using heavy equipment to level the remnants of newly burned buildings. The unit would be similar to a tractor company Austin created in Los Angeles to cut breaks around wildfires, maintain hillside fire roads and overhaul large industrial fires.

"When these houses burn up and there's no value left, I can get my firefighters, with proper training, to raze that house — get rid of it," he said.

Detroit Fire Fighters Association President Daniel McNamara said he opposes Austin's idea of letting vacant homes burn, unless they're on a predetermined demolition list, as is the case in Flint.

"If we could have that kind of communication, we wouldn't have this kind of discussion right now," McNamara said.

 

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