Detroit's slow yet dramatic change

Detroit gets new ambulances, puts plan in place to fix water waste debacle


DETROIT – Imagine the change in a place like rural China where they went from ox carts to bullet trains.

That is the kind of change Detroit is beginning to see and while it may have been significant culture shock for Chinese peasants, for Detroiters it is the kind of change that can make you feel somewhat optimistic about the city's future; having Detroit run the way it ought to as opposed to the way it has during its devastating, two generation decline. Today showed us two different versions of how good old fashioned American ingenuity and high technology will be able to help life in Detroit improve at an accelerated pace.

The first was the delivery of 13 new ambulances. The city took delivery of 10 back in August and those have logged better than one hundred thousand miles since then. Those were built from scratch from existing Navistar platforms when Roger Penske and his friends ordered last February.

This fleet of 13 trucks was built from scratch and took this long to get to the street. Roger Penske's people told me today it usually takes eight months to build one of these high-tech behemoths and they put this order on the fast track knowing lives are at stake. Everyone involved from the mayor on down to the EMTs themselves say these vehicles will improve service, cut down on response time and improve the quality of service in a city where bad service or no service were the only options.

That may be a culture shock in itself, but a welcome one indeed. On an interesting note, when these ambulances were first announced they were held in trust, not given to the city by the car companies and other benefactors who donated $8 million to buy these ambulances and roughly 100 police cars. They, at that time, suspected bankruptcy was in the cards and did not want the city having possession of the vehicles or the money only to have it diverted elsewhere in the bankruptcy process.

Now that the bankruptcy is official the vehicles are now City of Detroit property and the city's mechanics will work on them. This is a massive learning curve but one the Mayor's office believes manageable, especially considering there are warrantees on the ambulances and the companies are working to train the city's mechanics to be able to keep these vehicles on the road. The ambulances have a life expectancy of five to seven years and as the EMT union chief put it today "a major game changer."

Then there is the simply astounding problem of Detroit's wasted running water. With roughly 70,000 vacant homes and thousands more vacant businesses with little if any law enforcement attention paid, scrappers have had their way with this city. Their crimes at once so desperate and heartless they will steal the copper pipes from the basement and walk away with their metals and leave the water flooding the basement. The city water department's communications and bureaucracy were so thick and unworkable no one knew how to manage the calls. The water would spill out into the street after filling the basement and run for months at a time.

Even more frustrating for everyone in Southeast Michigan who pay their water bills, the City of Detroit was incapable of figuring out where these homes were. If you called in with a report of running water, and if you did not call the right phone number the complaint was never properly processed. The city now admits it simply did not do the barest minimum in attacking the problem. This cost us all money, big money in increased water bills that have increased every year for the past decade.

Well, now that is in the process of changing. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department announced a plan that is at once simple common sense and high-tech wizardry. First the city now will have one single phone number to call to report this problem. That number is 313-267-7401. You will start to see it on city owned vehicles to help remind residents to call in problems they find. Then the water department's work force has opted to change some of its work rules.

Now instead of chasing every work order as they come in, sending crews across the vast and often empty expanse of the City of Detroit inefficiently using man hours, the crews are now empowered. When they find water leaking in a basement they are told to assume scrappers have hit other homes in the neighborhood and walk the area streets to see if they can find another leaky basement. When they do they are allowed to fix that leak then and there without having to get permission.

One can only wonder how the practice of ignoring the rest of the block when they fix a leak started, but thankfully that will come to a screeching halt. Still the best part of this plan is soon to find its way to a cellphone near you. Yes, there is an app coming for running Detroit water. The technology so good, all you need to do is take the picture, send it to the city and you don't even have to follow up. All of the locator information is imbedded in the photograph and the water department repair crews will be able to go right to the address and make the fix. That is culture shock you can easily learn to live with, as long as it gets released and it works when it arrives. [If there is anything we've learned about such things, it's best to get excited AFTER we establish the system is functional, but there is some comfort in knowing it is coming.]

The City says there used to be thousands of these kinds of water leaks at any given time. It has attacked the problem with equipment and manpower over the past five or six years and now says it gets roughly 17 calls of this kind a day and as you read this 51 homes are leaking water awaiting a fix. But at least the city now is demonstrating an ability to get a handle on the scope of the problem and now plans to address it. That is bullet train style change in and of itself.

Now, we don't want to get carried away here; though high technology can accelerate progress smartly it is going to take a lot more of it to make the kind of dramatic change this city needs. Detroit's decline has been in many ways disheartening and complete.

The problems are massive and will take at least a generation of fixes of this kind to truly put the city on the right trajectory for an optimistic future this city deserves. As the Chinese proverbs tell us, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Today Detroit made two.

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