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Detroit's Under-Funded Fire Departments Use a Soda Can For a Fire Alarm

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Where absent money leaves gaps, ingenuity fills in. Nowhere is that more true than in Detroit's fire departments, where, as Detroit Free Press reporter Tresa Baldas shows us, a soda can full of jangling coins and screws alerts the Motor City's long-suffering heroes when there's an emergency.

The system is brilliantly simple: A soda can full of rattling metal is balanced on top of the fire department's printer at the end of the tray. When the printer spits out an emergency alert, the paper knocks over the can. The crash of the can hitting the floor tells firefighters that it's time to suit up.


As Baldas reports, some departments get even more creative, setting up systems where the printout knocks over a weight that flips the switch on a doorbell ringer. Others replace the rattling can with a length of pipe, making a clanging wind-chime noise when the printout knocks it to the floor.

Detroit's 38 firehouses have been using these improvised alarms for years, a fact made public during testimony this week at the city's bankruptcy trial. None of the city's fire departments have the modern alarm systems seen in most American firehouses, where a series of tones and an automated voice tell firefighters the nature of the alarm.


"It sounds unbelievable, but it's truly what the guys have been doing and dealing with for a long, long time," Detroit Deputy Fire Commissioner John Berlin told the Detroit Free Press. "We're in desperate need. We're probably 30 years behind."

Detroit's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has promised $42 million to revamp the city's fire departments, as part of a $1.4 billion reinvestment in the city over the next 10 years. It's desperately needed: Orr says the city's seven-minute response time to fires is "extremely slow," and with 12,000 fires a year, that's a lot of cans hitting the floor.


You have to admire Detroit's firefighters. They're making the best of a dire situation. It's not the ideal setup—far from it—but given the city's financial standing, it's the best they've got. [Detroit Free Press]

Top image taken from video by the Detroit Free Press