New policy doesn't keep Detroit firefighters at downed power lines

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Questions arise in the Detroit Fire Department after a woman was electrocuted by a downed power line. Should Detroit firefighters stay with downed power lines until utility crews arrive with a fix? Protocol says yes, but a recently-issued policy says no. 

Now, a woman is dead after touching an unattended line in an alley. 

The fire commissioner says this is about making sure resources and manpower are not bogged down and are able to respond to other calls. But sources say this is the first time the department has gone in this direction - and it is a turn for the worse.

"To me, they should've notified or had somebody there until they fixed the wire," said Willie Smith. "(Or) had somebody been there to make sure that nobody could get around the wire, that's what they should've done."

Had that happened, it is possible Willie Smith's sister, Dorothy Adams, would still be alive.

As investigators probe the circumstances surrounding the 72-year-old being electrocuted by a downed wire on Detroit's east side, FOX 2 has learned of a significant shift in Detroit Fire Department policy.

The standing order is: "All units be advised when responding to power lines notify central office, tape and secure the area and return in service."

Fire Chief Robert Distelrath issued that order on April 15 during the ice storm and the outages that followed, requiring firefighters to tape off downed wires and leave.
It is the opposite of the department's severe weather procedure which states: "Fire companies sitting on dangerous downed wires cannot leave the scene until properly relieved."  

"Ultimately, I'm responsible for all orders that are issued. We have to be cognizant that this is an act of God and some of these storms are overwhelming and we're doing our level best to protect the public," said Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones.

FOX 2 spoke with Jones by phone.

"We don't want to have an instance where firefighters are tied up sitting on a wire when there are other wires that are down," he said. "And other structures that are burning, because of those downed wires."

Retired Senior Fire Chief Tracy Thomas says the new order could prove disastrous.

"Who knows when we're going to get that run compared to the wires or not," he said. "You've got to face what's in front of you right now. I don't think we should be putting it off just in case we get a fire or we get an EMS run. No, we need to deal with the situation at hand."

Thomas said many firefighters have expressed concerns about it.

"I think we've had two civilian casualties," Thomas said. "I think one little girl, if I’m not mistaken; a little boy a couple years ago on the way to school. So they're very concerned about it because not only do they not want that on their conscious, but they don't want anybody to be hurt.

"When wires are down you cannot leave them unattended. You have to keep an engine squad or truck on them until they're properly relieved by either DTE, public lighting."

DTE says the downed wire that killed Adams was first reported to them on Saturday. A field crew found her body Monday when it arrived to make repairs. DTE says the area had been blocked off with caution tape. Even so, it was left unattended. 

"We are expanding a program," Jones said. "Working with some of my department head colleagues to figure out a way to get city employees involved in sitting on some of these downed wires that have been identified until DTE, because they are also inundated, can arrive to repair those downed wires."

In the meantime, firefighters are to cordon off down power lines, alert people who live nearby then leave. They are not to stay until DTE or public lighting arrive. 

So if you see caution tape or believe there is a down power line, stay back at least 20 feet.