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Decatur's urban core is burning. The city must do more to put out the flames

There have been more structure fires in Decatur this year than any other year in the past decade, and our city has more structure fires than much larger cities in Central Illinois.  The vast majority of these fires are in the city’s urban core, an area that is disproportionately poor and has suffered from limited investment.  The city council can and should take action to reduce the number of structure fires by demolishing more delipidated structures that cannot be rehabilitated and restoring fire inspector and investigator positions to the Decatur Fire Department. 


Approximately 3 years ago, the city had 3 fire inspectors and investigators.  Today, with the number of structure fires rising, the city has 0.  It is time these positions be returned to the department.  Fire prevention programs overseen by fire inspectors provide fire safety education for children and parents to keep families safe from fire.  Fire inspectors also inspect buildings to make sure they are safe for citizens to use as they are intended and perform fire code enforcement.  Fire investigators determine the cause of fires including arson.  Just as a police department needs detectives, a school system needs teaching assistants, and a hospital needs nurses, a fire department needs fire investigators and inspectors. 

Prior to the loss of the city’s fire inspectors and investigators, the Decatur Fire Department conducted approximately 125 fire investigations each year, inspected over 250 schools and businesses, installed over 150 smoke detectors including for families with limited income, and provided dozens of educational programs for children including Fire Prevention Month in October.  These tasks protect the public and were performed by fire investigators and inspectors.  Furthermore, without fire investigators, fire fighters must remain at the site of the suspicious fires until the State Fire Marshal investigator arrives, potentially limiting the capabilities of the fire department for long periods of time. 


Abandoned properties are not only eyesores, they can be the target of arsonists or used by squatters who accidently set the house on fire.  Years of limited investment in our urban core may be why the city currently has hundreds if not thousands of unoccupied housing units that are in disrepair and these houses are burning in the first place.  The number of Decatur housing units declared unfit for human habitation YTD thru November 2022 was 459, a 73% increase from the 265 units declared unfit thru November 2019 (pre-COVID).  In addition, the number of housing units the city has boarded up thru November 2022 was 319, a 114% increase from the 149 housing units boarded up thru October 2019.  The city has estimated that between 250-300 houses need to be demolished each year to keep pace with the rate of blight.  YTD thru November 2022, the city has demolished 61 housing units (24% of what is needed).  The city has millions of dollars available to remove even more derelict properties.  As one example, by adopting a 60-day cash reserve it will have ~$6.4 million in unrestricted funds for ongoing neighborhood revitalization efforts. 


Even though the city’s population is declining, our fire department is likely to respond to more alarms in 2022 than in any year in its history.  I want to thank Decatur Fire Fighters for the work you do every day to protect the lives, safety, and property of our citizens.  Decatur citizens are very fortunate to have such dedicated and courageous public servants.  Thank you for your tremendous service to our city and keep up the great work. 

Horn for Decatur
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