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Police focus on traffic, security for Wallenda weekend; Up to 150,000 people are expected in Falls, with most in Canada

There's no simple formula for dealing with the tens of thousands of tourists expected to pour into the area to view Nik Wallenda's high-wire walk Friday over Niagara Falls.

No one has ever attempted a feat like this in recent history, and public-safety authorities never have had to deal with as large a crowd, with officials expecting up to 150,000 people.

Authorities say security will be tight.

Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John R. Chella said city police will be joined by federal agents from the FBI, Border Patrol, Customs and Transportation Security Administration, as well as New York State Police, State Parks Police and the Niagara County Sheriff's Office.

"There will be a lot of watchful eyes on the Wallenda weekend," he said.

Chella said controlling traffic will be a No. 1 priority as police prepare for Wallenda's walk, but making the city look and feel safe will be a key goal that will continue well past this weekend.

"We are not reinventing the wheel," he said. "Objectively we are approaching this as we would any big event -- maybe to a larger scale."

Police here and across the border estimate as many as 120,000 spectators will watch from in and around the Queen Victoria Park and Fallsview areas on the Canadian side, with 20,000 to 30,000 expected on the American side.

Spectators converging on the two cities will see a much larger police presence on the Canadian side, with a command post set up in Queen Victoria Park. Police there will be in direct communication with law enforcement on the U.S. side, said Douglas Kane, chief of the Niagara Parks Police Service in Canada.

Canadian law enforcement officials are using the annual New Year's Eve celebration in Niagara Falls, Ont., which draws about 50,000 to 60,000 people, as a blueprint for public safety planning, although the Wallenda event could draw twice as many people.

But police said they are prepared. "Rarely do we see an event of this scale which requires the co-ordination of so many public service and emergency service agencies," Kane told reporters last week. "Indeed, this event required resources to work effectively together throughout the region, the province and across the international border with agencies at all levels of government."

Chella said every agency will be working with the city Police Department's special operation forces, who were deployed after a second armed robbery in the city at the end of May.

He said the department has stepped up both foot patrols and marked cars, as well as unmarked cars and undercover plainclothes officers in the special operations area downtown.

In the past month there have been car break-ins targeting tourists and two high-profile armed robberies -- one May 25, when a student waiting for a bus was robbed at gunpoint in front of the Econo Lodge on Rainbow Boulevard, and the other May 27, when two California tourists were robbed at gunpoint in the Days Inn parking lot on Niagara Street.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said the recent robberies were striking because they are a change from what people usually see, noting that most crime victims know their attackers.

He said more tourism means more crime, adding that Niagara Falls is no different from any other tourist city, including Niagara Falls, Ont.

This week, before the Wallenda walk, Chella said he will be meeting with the hotel/motel owners business association to enlist their aid.

He said they will reissue the avoiding-a-crime tip sheets for hotel/motel guests and will ask employees, particularly those with a view of the parking lot, to be attentive to suspicious activity and call police immediately.

Canadian officials also offered some tips for travelers dealing with the congestion as they cross the border for the Wallenda walk, a free event.

"We are strongly encouraging guests to arrive to the region early and use alternative routes to the Falls, including the McLeod Road off-ramp from the QEW," Kane said. "Most GPS and mapping devices and software refer motorists directly to the 420 Highway, resulting in heavy traffic congestion and underutilized routes."

Authorities recommend going online at www.niagarabridges.com for bridge traffic updates. Pedestrians crossing the Rainbow Bridge won't be permitted to stop for an extended period to watch the walk.

The immediate area around the Falls has parking for 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles, but a section of the Niagara Parkway in Canada, which is central to the event, will be closed at about 4 p.m. Friday for pedestrian safety, Kane said.

Authorities are encouraging the use of mass transit or the $5 shuttle service at park-and-ride lots. For information, check out www.niagarafalls.ca.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com