Detroit: A Culture of Extinguishment

Detroit: A Culture of Extinguishment

As a fire department PIO I’m fortunate that my passion of photography is also my job.  I don’t know of any others in my profession that schedule vacation time, pack up their cameras and handguns, travel to one of America’s most dangerous cities, intentionally spend sleepless nights in post-apocalyptic looking neighborhoods to photograph a department they don’t work for.  Welcome to my life.

I began researching Detroit from afar after watching news reports by Charlie Leduff, a brilliant and unconventional journalist.  Later, the BURN documentary solidified my desire to visit Detroit and see firefighting life there for myself.  During a brief trip in 2015 my wife and I ventured on an urban exploration journey with photographer Jesse Welter.  That experience combined with a record breaking July 4th for arson fires was a true awakening for me in regards to what we have allowed an American city to become.  I knew I had to go back again and I just returned from a weeklong visit.

Fire photographers have inadvertently created a misperception of the Detroit Fire Department that I hope to correct here.  While in Detroit I only made it on scene of 7 working structure fires in 5 days… yep, an average of one per day and it wasn’t for lack of trying.  It also wasn’t for lack of fire.  “Box Alarm” was announced over the radio multiple times per day for reported fires in structures.  “Still Alarms” went out more often for smaller reported fires, including detached garages, with a response of only 1 Engine and 1 Ladder.  In a city that spans 142 square miles it’s nearly impossible for a photographer to arrive on scene of a small fire in time to see anything worth capturing an image of.  Trust me, I’ve tried.

On the first night companies arrived on Cicotte Street and found a dwelling “going throughout,” perhaps a photographers favorite words.  A lot of fire means higher chances of capturing those iconic DFD photos of firefighter silhouettes in front of raging infernos.   A short time later my wife (yes she comes with cameras in hand too) and I pulled down the block and only saw blinding red LED lights in a small haze of smoke.  In a matter of minutes this fully engulfed house had already been extinguished with an interior search and overhaul in progress.  No drama, no flames, just Firefighters doing what the city pays them to do, put out fires.

Engine 42 on scene of a dwelling found “going throughout” on Cicotte Street and quickly controlled.

Next try, an eastside box with the companies everyone has seen in BURN, Engine 50, Ladder 23 and Chief 9.  “Stretching on a vacant dwelling,” meant this was another legit fire but there was nothing to see once we got there.  Rigs in the street, firefighters inside and not a puff of smoke left.

Engine 50 (using a spare) on Jane Street where fire blowing out the front was quickly controlled

Lets try the 8th Battalion, “Central, send me an extra company for RIT,” more help needed, it must be a gooder and it was, before we got there.  This was the first fire where it hit me, lesson number 1, what all of my fantastic photographer counterparts haven’t been sharing, notice anything strange about this photo? At Box Alarm with 4 Engines, 1 Ladder and 1 Squad Company on scene you can only see the aerial operator on the turntable and the Battalion Chief in Command; everyone else was inside.  This photo isn’t going to win an award or end up in print but it tells an important part of the DFD story.

Ladder 18 on scene of a vacant dwelling fire on Norwood, Chief 8 commands from the street.

Another day, another round of Box Alarms but this time it was different, “Defensive Posture,” ah ha! Finally we’ll get to witness one of those iconic DFD blazes and there was a big plume of smoke in the air to boot.  A big plume that quickly got smaller after companies dumped the monitors and set up an aerial before we could get there.  A trip from the 7th Battalion up to the 5th isn’t the longest trek a person can make in Detroit, but it was long enough for these professionals to knock down a fully engulfed 2 story vacant.

Ladder 22 front and center knocking down flames with their aerial master stream.

I consider myself lucky to have captured a fireground moment I’ve never seen anywhere before, in person or in a picture.  This was a display of confidence from a “fireman’s fireman” that undoubtedly will make the safety police and keyboard IC’s take a defensive posture of their own.  As a PIO I debated about sharing it with anyone but as a journalist I know it’s a once in a lifetime photograph.  Other than, “What a badass” the other comment from firefighters who have seen this image is, “Just another day at the office.”  I couldn’t agree more with both statements.

A Detroit Firefighter takes a creative and expert level approach to dismounting an aerial ladder.

It took a few days and another 3 a.m. Box Alarm before I captured a fire that meets the incorrect expectation of a standard Detroit job.  A wood frame dwelling was going throughout and this time it was close enough to our hotel.  An ember-filled plume was up and could be seen from blocks away as Ladder 6 prepared for aerial operations.  No immediate exposures, just a vacant tinderbox that resembled a large bonfire.  3 other photographers had beaten us and were capturing images of their own.  I won’t argue that this type of incident isn’t great for photography, it is, but it’s not what the Detroit Fire Department does most.

Ladder 6 opens up on a vacant dwelling going throughout at Canfield and St. Clair.
The iconic Detroit Fire Department image, a big defensive fire on an empty street.

“Box Alarm, fire is reported in a 4-flat with people trapped.”  Those were the words I woke up to as companies were going en-route around 3 a.m. yet again.  After 18 years in the fire service I still hate responding incidents were people are hurt.  This trip was supposed to be about big defensive fires in vacant buildings, not about people trapped inside their burning home.  Reality check.  I couldn’t be even remotely excited when I walked up the block on this one and considered not going at all.  Concerned neighbors lined the sidewalk, any visible fire that popped up was quickly knocked down and the spray from hydraulic ventilation was raining down on us.

Detroit Firefighters aggressively working inside both levels and on the roof.

See this image?  This was a repeat of lesson number 1 for me.  The unsung hero’s of Detroit EMS, a Battalion Chief and 2 Firefighters on the roof opening up were the only personnel not INSIDE this structure searching and putting out 2 floors of fire.  This is what the Detroit Fire Department is all about.  Using the words of Ray McCormack, Detroit is a “culture of extinguishment.”  The community takes notice, I know because I stood with them as they spoke words of praise for these brave men and women.  Yes, women, more on that later.

A lonely looking scene as EMS stands by for possible victims while Firefighters work inside and on the roof.

Lesson number 2 first appeared to me at this fire and it wasn’t the last time.  Exhaustion.  Detroit’s Firefighters work until they are physically unable to stand upright anymore.  This brave officer laid his airpack on the ground, took off his red helmet and fell to his knees in the street.  The sound of low air alarms could be heard inside the smoke filled structure where there was still much work to be done.

Exhausted, this officer fell to his knees in the street.

In the foreground the incident commander laid his hand on this officer’s back and briefly spoke to him.  I don’t know what the chief said, but it was what this man needed to get back on his feet and pull line into the first floor where a flare up was being taken care of.

A Battalion Chief laid his hand on this exhausted officer’s back.

Exhaustion isn’t always easy to see and sometimes it’s even more difficult to capture in a photograph.  After arduous vertical ventilation with a TNT tool, this firefighter sat down on the roofline appearing to catch his breath.  A short time later he slowly made his way down the aerial and looked to be in pain.

This Firefighter seemed exhausted after opening up the hard way.

Another day, another 3 a.m. Box Alarm, this time in Detroit’s southwest side, just down the street from the quarters of E33/L13.  2 vacant dwellings were going throughout and auto exposing a detached garage and occupied home on the bravo side.  I watched Firefighters do an excellent job stopping a freight train of heat from destroying someone’s home and talking to the family about what was happening.   People live here.

The Bravo 1 exposure going throughout at 8147 Lafayette.
Ladder 13 battles 2 vacant dwellings going throughout.
Firefighters prevented further damage to a neighboring occupied home.

Mid afternoon, just a half block off of Woodward, a Box Alarm.  We could see it from our hotel just over a mile away and made good time.  The first Engine already dumped their monitor on 2 floors of fire extending into the attic of a vacant dwelling.


The term vacant is a loose one as I found out from neighbors and concerned community members who knew of people that spent time inside the burning structure.  It served as a convenient place for the addicted and the otherwise homeless that have families and friends who worry about them.  Why wasn’t this fire and countless others in vacant buildings defensive?  Because they’re so often being sought for shelter by people who might need to be rescued.


Engine 35 uses their monitor for transitional attack.
The Chief commands while advancing hose into the front door, his Firefighters all inside searching.

After the monitor was used a second time crews made the push inside and an additional Engine was requested for RIT, brining a neighboring company from Hamtramck.  This was an all out interior assault on a fire that would have easily been declared defensive in other places.  Exhaustion was easy to see at this scene as two Firefighters collapsed outside and took in some fresh oxygen from EMS.  It served as enough of a recharge to get back inside and work again.

One of my favorite moments captured resulted from excited neighbors applauding and cheering when they realized one of the hard working Firefighters was a woman.  She acknowledged with a big smile and a bunker coat curtsy.  She was the first female firefighter I had ever seen in Detroit, a few days earlier at the defensive fire on Canfield and St. Clair.  I didn’t talk to her on this sunny afternoon but she looked tough as nails with a smile that says, “stretching and loving it.”

A Firefighter reacts to applause and cheers from neighbors.

The perception that Detroit Firefighters only stand outside of fully involved vacant buildings in empty neighborhoods and always go defensive is wrong.  Their singed bunker gear and blackened helmets don’t get that way from standing in the street.  These are aggressive big city professionals who do more with less every day.  As an observer I flew home feeling like I attended Box Alarm University.  There are only a handful of places the U.S. where you can visit and be guarantied to witness an uncontrolled classroom of scene safety, reading smoke, fire behavior, strategy & tactics, hose placement, ladder placement, exposure protection and overhaul techniques… the 313 tops that short list.  I am better from watching them.


52 Replies to “Detroit: A Culture of Extinguishment”

  1. Eric , outstanding photo journalism! I sincerely hope your documentation will help DFD when they fight for a decent piece of the public safety budget. They deserve only the best equipment and resources for health and safety .

  2. I have been retired from South Metro Fire Dept. for 14 years now. I have seen many stories & photos from our own PIOs, but this has to be one of the most exceptional stories I have ever seen. Anyone in the Fire service should be very proud of the jobs they do. I hope all of them come back to the house safely after a call.


  3. Very well done Eric, I for one appreciate the honesty of the story here, being a long time Ghetto Fireman myself I feel their pain, and yes it really does take one heck of a toll on your body going to several fires on a regular basis. They deserve the best!

    1. Thank you Tony! You’re spot on and I hope my article creates an awareness of it for the people who have no idea. Gary is on my list of places to visit and I’ve seen many videos of your department hard at work. There are lots of untold stories out there and I suspect Gary is one of them. Stay safe.

  4. Awesome article…… As a mom who’s son almost got on to Detroit Fire I’m thankful he didn’t (from a mom’s perspective). When I visited from SoCal I was given a first hand tour in a rig sitting in the captains seat. It’s a sad situation that these boys have to work with near the bottom of the bucket equipment and their salaries are for squat. Our local paper here printed the pensions of police chiefs, Batallion Chiefs all over $200,000/yr. To me that’s BS. Only because our fire fighters don’t fight fires like Detroit. It’s almost embarrassing to admit you’re a firefighter in So. Cal. When 911 is called a engine , a paramedic, and and ambulance roll…. Sometime I think for shits and giggles and practice the hook and ladder rolls for a MEDICAL call a little overboard I think. Bottom line Detroit Firemen are hardcore and I pray for the 2 that I know , and their crews, as I also pray for my son who by the way got on to Dearborn and those crews. Firefighting is dangerous business. To all Firefighters stay safe God Bless you. ❤️🚒❤️

  5. Thank you Eric. Sometimes it helps to get recognition for your hard work , just to know someone acknowledges . Ps. We work very hard at preventing fire’s as well.

    1. Captain Thomas,

      Thank you for writing. While my glimpse into the DFD only included suppression, I can only imagine the challenges faced and the hard work that everyone does in Detroit from the 911 dispatch center to prevention to fleet maintenance and investigations, etc. It is always a good reminder to highlight the many moving pieces that rely on each other to get the job done. I have the pleasure of sharing office space with the prevention, code enforcement and investigation personnel at my own department and I’m constantly impressed by the attention to detail and vital work they’re doing… mostly without acknowledgment. As a PIO their story is one I try to tell as often as I can. Thanks for what you do.

  6. Eric, great article and photos, as a retired Chief of Detroit these men and women of the City of Detroit Fire Department never get the recognition or pay they deserve. They do this work because they love the city and serving the community. Great Job!

  7. A job well done. Being retired with 28 years on the DFD you gave the men and women of the DFD a great recognition and tribute to the thankless job they do day in and day out. Understaffed and with equipment the takes a beating like no other department. Thank you from an ” old fire dog “.

  8. Hi Eric, Thank you for this awesome piece! I serve as administrative assistant at our local combination fire department. Have digested many articles over the years of being family to fire service professionals. (My fire chief husband just retired with 45 years and our youngest son has 17+ years on the job.) I intended to give a quick scan through this one but I was hooked after the first paragraphs and photos. You do such an excellent job of documenting in word and images the additional risks and challenges faced in declining neighborhoods and what these dedicated unsung heroes do every day. We count Detroit Fire Fighter John Kay among our many friends in the fire service so your article hits close to home there too. Keep up the good work!

  9. This is an outstanding article. Thank you for telling it how it is, and clearing up some confusion! As a girl who has many family members and friends who are on the Detroit Fire Department I have seen the exhaustion too many mornings when they come through the door at home. In my opinion there will never be enough praise or recognition for exactly what they do everyday. But then again, most of them are so modest they wouldn’t accept it anyways 🙂

    1. Morgan, I think the fire service has gone too far away from sharing the human side of what our firefighters go through. It’s so important to remember they aren’t super human machines, they’re regular people doing extraordinary and dangerous things regularly. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Absolutely incredible photos and story. Thank you Michael Risher, DFD, for sharing this. And Thank You Eric for telling what the DFD does.

  11. I concur with everythibg said here, tge Fire Departments should be a 1st priority when it comes to havingvtge resources and tools it takes to do the job. I pray everyday for all Firemen and women tgat god coverts them to do their best, give them the mental and ohysical capacities they need. God…… Thank You for your service….You have to be a certain person to do this job….

  12. I grew up across the street from E33-L13. Firemen are wonderful and very hard working. I remember during the riots, my mother cutting the boots off of one of the fireman because his gout got so bad from standing on his feet for 10 hours fighting fires while being shot at. Once he got some relief, he forced other boots on and went back to fight more. Upmost respect for our firemen. A rare breed. Thanks for your hard work and dedication

  13. Nice piece Eric! As always your photography is first class. I also very much enjoyed the writing. The combination of your images and words paint both a vivid and human side of Detroit firefighting and firefighting culture in general. Keep up the great work, stay safe, and PS. I dig your blog site here! Best of luck with! See you on the street!

    1. Shane,
      Thank you for taking the time to read it and drop me a note. I really appreciate your complements and encouragement. I’m sure I’ll see ya under a smoke plume in the near future!

  14. Eric , I retired as a Fire Chief for DFD . I thank you for portraying the truth about the hard working men and woman that I was priviledged to work with and command for 33yrs. Without question they are the best! Now they are doing Extinguishment and Medical. They have the character and strength to rise up to any situation, more often then not it results in a positive outcome which is the driving force behind them. We know we make a Difference!! DFD Strong!!
    Eric your article and pictures speak volumes. Thank you.
    Rick Gainer
    Ritired Batt Chief 9th Battalion

  15. Eric,

    Fantastic story and wonderful insight on the members of the Detroit Fire Department. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was much like others you referred to in the story simply assuming that the DFD members, while responding to a multitude of working structure fires, simply did the outside stand with a surround and drown mentality as the majority are typically vacant buildings. How shortsighted and presumptuous of me and quite frankly embarrassing given that I’m a 30 year plus veteran of the fire service. For my assumptions, I hope the members of the Detroit Fire Department will forgive me. And to you, thanks for your brilliant assessment and for setting the record straight!

  16. Good stuff, count me in as one of the weirdos that takes vacation time to go the D. I’ve beem a handful of times, a couple of trips that were fairly slow and a couple that we caught some real good work. These guys and gals are tough as nails, the D is a very interesting place.

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