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Police, fire officials gear up for Falls stunt; Crowds, traffic are top concerns

As Nik Wallenda grabs the spotlight with his daily wire-walking practices near the falls, officials are working behind the scenes to ensure the city can handle the event.

With thousands expected to flock to the city for Wallenda's June 15 tightrope walk over the falls, controlling the crowds and traffic will be the city's number one concern, Police Superintendent John R. Chella said Monday.

"If we get the numbers we're projecting, it will be the biggest event I know [of]," Chella said.

Lawmakers could not recall an event in recent years that has generated as much publicity as Wallenda's wire-walk, though some have pointed to a 1988 Grand Prix race and the city's July 4 celebrations as events that have drawn large crowds.

Those events, though, didn't involve planning for the possibility of a daring rescue that might need to occur just feet from the falls.

Canadian authorities will provide rescue boats to be driven by local officials on both sides of the border, Fire Chief Thomas Colangelo said, and full fire crews will be dispatched to Goat Island for any problems with the wire's rigging or for crowd safety issues.

The Police Department has been meeting weekly with officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Border Patrol, Niagara Falls State Park, State Police and the Niagara County Sheriff's Office.

Eighteen police officers will be deployed for traffic issues, Chella said, and border agents and sheriff's deputies will ride bikes and walk the beat. City police will provide any undercover police details. Wallenda will also have his own private safety team.

"If it were tomorrow, we'd be ready," Chella told the City Council.

City officials want Wallenda's team to cover some of the public safety costs, estimated at less than $25,000 each for the police and fire departments.

"We're going to chip in," Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. "We're not expecting [them] to cover our total costs, but overtime for public safety seems like a reasonable thing for them to cover."

Wallenda, while he was lobbying officials for permission for the walk, offered to pay for local safety costs.

Councilman Glenn A. Choolokian urged the city to issue temporary vending permits for small businesses who want to sell their wares the day of the walk. Dyster said the city is looking into the possibility of creating one-time permits.

"This is a huge event," Choolokian told the mayor. "I don't know when the next time this is going to happen. So we need to do everything we can to get the local businesses involved."

Choolokian later apologized to city residents and said the city has not promoted the event like officials in Canada have.

State officials have planned a street party on Old Falls Street outside the state park that will include big-screen televisions to view the stunt, circus performers, live animals and other children's activities.

City resident Ron Anderluh told the council the city needs to staff its parking lots and put up banners at city entrances touting the practice sessions and wire-walk.

"There isn't going to be room downtown for all these cars," Anderluh said.

Dyster said the city will barricade areas where there is no parking.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com