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Fire Dept. in Falls is approved for 8 hires Council acts on grant in federal program

The city will hire eight new firefighters before the end of the year to meet federal safety guidelines for responding to fires in high-rise buildings, industrial sites and other hazardous conditions, the City Council decided Monday night.

The decision to hire more firefighters will also move the city closer to complying with a labor settlement struck in court in 2004 in which the city agreed to incrementally increase the number of firefighters on duty to make up for a series of layoffs within the department.

Funding for the new firefighters for the next four years will come from $2.1 million in city surplus funds set aside by city leaders earlier this year and an $843,000 federal grant.

The city will be responsible for the entire cost of the eight firefighters starting in 2013.

The federal grant was the largest award to any fire department in the state from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program, Fire Chief William D. MacKay said.

"The City of Niagara Falls Fire Department is ranked as the 203rd-busiest department in the entire country," MacKay said. "Our emergency incident activity is greater than cities such as Atlantic City, N.J., Erie, Pa., and Waterbury, Conn."

The grant was awarded to the city in May, but the Council did not officially accept the money until Monday night after Mayor Paul A. Dyster submitted a plan to pay for the city's share of the firefighters' pay.

Members of the Uniformed Firefighters Local 714, which represents city firefighters, agreed to waive a requirement under the 2004 settlement agreement that the city have 27 firefighters on duty for each shift beginning next year.

Instead, the city will be required to have a minimum of 26 firefighters on each shift during the next five years. It currently has at least 24 firefighters on each shift.

Paying for additional firefighters to meet staffing levels put into the 2004 settlement agreement has been a difficult issue for city leaders for the last three years. It ignited a public backlash in 2006 when city leaders discussed the possibility of closing down fire equipment at the 72nd Street Fire Hall in LaSalle because of financial constraints.

Instead, the city struck a deal with the firefighters union to temporarily reduce the staffing requirements. That deal was scheduled to run out at the end of this year.

Michael Burke, a member of the executive board of Local 714, said the decision to accept the grant would help keep firefighters safe and would prevent the city from having to reduce the amount of firefighting equipment in service.

Also Monday, the Council:

Learned from Dyster that the city is still examining the cost of hauling away incinerator ash from the site of a planned Niagara Falls Housing Authority development that would replace Center Court.

The Housing Authority has asked the city to provide as much as $3 million to move the ash from a former city park to a landfill.

Dyster told the Council that the Niagara County Department of Health has raised concerns about whether some of the ash can be used in utility trenches in the housing development. If not, additional ash may have to go to the landfill and the cost of removing the ash could increase, Dyster said.

City leaders have not yet agreed to pay for the ash removal.

Approved a construction agreement with CSX for a project to replace railroad bridges over Lewiston Road with one bridge. The agreement is one of the final hurdles to starting a federally funded project to reconstruct Lewiston Road, said Robert T. Buzzelli, a city engineer.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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