Detroit Fire: When the bell tolls, they answer

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The firefighters of this metropolis are buckling under the workload and it shows.

The Fourth of July weekend was an orgy of flame and mayhem: 140 fires, innumerable medical runs, the obese invalid needing extraction from a stale back bedroom.

Sunrise to sunset to sunrise again, the alarm bells in the firehouses across this city bray like a beaten mule. Always, the goddamned bell.

There is no good sleep in the early morning hours for the men here at Engine 41, located deep in the heart of the city's East Side. The bell won't allow it. They wear the fatigue like a mask of mud.

"When you have poverty, you have fire," says Firefighter Wes Rawls, 41, a lean, 17-year-veteran as he scans the evening horizon for smoke. "And here, there's a lot of poverty."

This firehouse - known as "Fort Rohn" - is located in the neighborhood where a mad man, or mad men, or mad women lost the lightening one recent evening, setting fire to 18 houses.

The building across the street from the firehouse is abandoned. The house next door was destroyed by an arsonist as was the one next to that and the one next to that and so on, to the expressway a mile up the road.

"People jumping power lines to get electricity. The wiring in the houses is shoddy. They don't have smoke detectors," Rawls says. "There's that, and then there's the arsonists trying to outdo each other."

For all the talk about the miracle comeback of downtown Detroit, there is little mentioned about the struggles of the city's neighborhoods where 600,000 people go all but unnoticed. The skeletal city services, the bankruptcy balanced on the backs of the people who serve them: the police and firefighters, many of whom are retiring or relocating to distant cities with higher pay and better benefits and far fewer fires.

Fires are slightly down in Detroit this year, but the workload has increased for the Detroit firefighter thanks to a new directive that requires them to respond to medical emergencies. In total, firefighters have responded to 16,000 emergency calls this year.

That being said, things are slowly, but perceptibly changing for the better, many firefighters say. Response times for medical emergencies and fires are down in Detroit, near the national standard of eight minutes. New bunker gear is on order. Boots no longer have holes and there is of plenty toilet paper and soap in the bathrooms. Older trucks and engines are being repaired when they used to rot in the shop.

New rigs have been budgeted. The mayor has promised to hire 90 new men. The commissioner and the union are working together with a sense of common purpose. A deal for a small boost in pay and a pension sweetener is on the table. Arsonists are being arrested, and abandoned houses are being demolished. Money is going into the field instead of contractors' pockets.

"We've got a long way to go, but things are starting to turn around," Rawls says. "No matter what, no matter how beat down we are, we're still coming. We're coming with everything we've got."

And with that, the bell goes off and so do the men of Engine 41.