bankole thompsonInside city hall it is a wait and see moment these days for the man who by most accounts will be Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s pick to be the new fire commissioner.


The appointment of Donald Austin, who is from Los Angeles, California, where he served as assistant chief of fire department there, is expected be announced by Mayor Bing soon. If appointed, Austin will be bringing almost three decades of experience to the city’s fire department. This appointment is significant for the city of Detroit in light of not only the recent census numbers, but the less than desired services residents and businesses have been receiving from the Detroit’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) which operates under the Detroit Fire Department.


Even though the fire commissioner is basically an administrative role because the chief of fire operations handles fire operations in the city, the leadership of the department mirrors the kinds of services those are being encouraged to stay and do business in the city will receive.


And everyone has a reason to be concerned about the slow EMS response that has been blamed on everything else including trucks that are not working.


But no one really called for a surgical operation of the department. The problem of EMS is beyond non-workable equipment. It speaks to serious managerial issues and what kind of resources should be devoted to ensure that people who are in need of medical attention get to the hospital on time.


To do so will require leadership at the fire department that has vision.


One individual who is very with fire department operations told me Tuesday morning that “the fire department’s problem is that it never had a business model to operate from in the first place,” which explains half-baked EMS service that has been publicized for all to see. “The challenge now for the new fire commissioner when he gets in town is to ensure there is no more death when EMS is called to a home,” the individual said.


I don’t know Donald Austin. But his first task would be to take a serious look at EMS and get to the root of the problem and let taxpayers if, in fact, the problems hinge equipment and not management.


Detroit is in a crucial economic and political state and our leaders cannot talk about attracting businesses and families to the city when response time from EMS is slow.


Anytime there is an incident at a home and EMS doesn’t show up on time, it’s a minus for the city because its insurance risk of doing business goes up. Businesses take that into consideration before moving into a particular area.


The Insurance Services Organization (lOS), which rates municipalities and cities on insurance risk issues dealing with EMS, fire, etc., has a record on Detroit. But its corporate office in New Jersey, according to spokeswoman Jessica Riccardi, would not release the city’s latest insurance risk rating, noting that such records are kept with the fire department.


A fire officer who requested anonymity because he has not been authorized to disclose any information, said the city’s rating is not that impressive given the wave of dismal services we have seen with EMS.


Couple that with the Census and Detroit should now be thinking outside the box — how to address the needs of taxpaying residents and businesses in a tough economy.


If Donald Austin is the man to lead the fire department, he will have to work out a plan and set a vision for the department that has an annual $175 million budget. With that amount the city cannot afford to have a slow ambulance system that is currently forcing people to think twice about staying in Detroit.


The city has a notorious reputation for not accepting outsiders leading powerful institutions that make up its local government; so Austin will have to stand firm.


The fire department should not repeat the mistakes of former Detroit police chief Jerry Oliver who butted heads with the men and women in blue.


Instead, a new fire department leader should assemble a team that will revamp everything from equipment to management. Take action that will give the public, confidence that we are in safe and competent hands.


Give families who are struggling to keep their mortgages and pay their taxes a reason to live here and feel confident that the next EMS· response time will be swifter than the last.


Demonstrate to businesses that Detroit is a world class city, and that means core services are provided without delay or administrative bureaucracy.


How the Detroit Fire Department fares after Bing announces his pick to lead the troubled department will say a lot about emergency preparedness in the city. It will show the world whether Detroit gets it.


Those hard-working fire fighters out there in the streets and EMS workers should not have to be strangled and made to take the fall, when the real problem is leadership, resources and management at the helm of the department.


Make Detroit proud by changing the game.


Bankole Thompson is the author of the new book, “Obama and Black Loyalty, Vol. 1,” part of a trilogy on President Barack Obama. Listen to his weekly analyses Thursdays at 11:15 a.m. on “The Craig Fahle Show,” WDET-101.9FM, NPR affiliate. E-mail him at

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