Posted on September 10, 2014

Detroit Fire Department Has Alert System Made of Pop Cans, Doorbells

Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press, September 6, 2014

Detroit is so broke that firefighters get emergency alerts through pop cans, coins, door hinges, pipes and doorbells.

And they make these gizmos themselves–one involving a pop can that gets tipped over by an incoming fax. The clink of the can means there’s an emergency. Then there’s the chain-reaction gadget: a fax hits a door hinge, which then tugs on a wire, which then sets off a doorbell.

“It sounds unbelievable, but it’s truly what the guys have been doing and dealing with for a long, long time,” said Detroit Deputy Fire Commissioner John Berlin, adding that technological upgrades are long overdue. “We’re in desperate need. We’re probably 30 years behind.”

Berlin’s comments confirmed today’s testimony of a recovery consultant for the city of Detroit, who said at the bankruptcy trial that technological upgrades are long overdue in the city.

The witness, Charles Moore, talked about how the city plans to spend $1.4 billion on services when it emerges from bankruptcy. Technology, he said, needs to be a priority. To bolster his argument, he shared the pop-can, fire-alert story.

Moore said one of his colleagues who spends lots of time at Detroit firehouses told him about it.

Turns out, Moore’s colleague was right: Due to budget constraints, none of the city’s 38 firehouses have the modern-day emergency alert systems that most other cities use.

In most cities, fire officials say, when an emergency alert comes into a fire station, a series of bells sound off–like Morse code. Then an automated voice offers instructions on which engines go where.

“Well, we don’t have that system here,” Berlin said. “The firefighters modify . . . they improvise.”


Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has made public safety a cornerstone of his $1.4 billion reinvestment strategy over the next 10 years, with $42 million carved out for fire department upgrades, including technology systems.

According to a 2013 report issued by Orr, response times for both the Fire Department and EMS are “extremely slow” compared to other cities.

The Fire Department’s average time is 7 minutes, and EMS’ response time is 15 minutes. That’s partly due to old trucks and ambulances that are poorly maintained, combined with a never-ending string of incidents, the report found. Detroit has had between 11,000 to 12,000 fires every year for the past decade.