For eight long years, the firefighters of Highland Park, Michigan, worked out of a warehouse. There was no red-bricked facade, no lanky Dalmatian. No freshly washed engines gleaming in the sun. No second-floor fire pole to descend in the dead of night to wailing sirens. Whatever idealized vision you have of firefighting, Highland Park is not it. Instead, picture a hulking, boxy building on the edge of an industrial park about six miles north of downtown Detroit. A small metal sign points the way, light blue with “Fire Dept” stenciled in all-caps white, the previous tenant’s name erased with spray paint. There’s a parking lot strewn with detritus (including a vagabond shopping cart) and beyond that train tracks and Interstate 75, the eight-lane highway that cuts through the heart of Detroit.

The Highland Park fire department opened nearly a century ago, in 1917, to serve the booming city. It once employed 84 firefighters; today it’s less than half that. Yet they answer, on average, 1,000 runs a year, including 150-200 structure fires. They fight car fires, respond to accidents, and answer calls about hazardous materials. They have one working ladder truck.