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CITY WANTS FAST TRACK FOR FIRE DEPARTMENT STUDY

The city and its fire union have asked consultants to fast-track a study that is expected to recommend sweeping changes in the Fire Department.

An expert who has worked on more than 100 similar studies throughout the country was in Buffalo on Wednesday, interviewing fire officials and reviewing procedures. Next week, members of a Boston-based consulting team will tour city firehouses to assess their locations and physical conditions.

MMA Consulting Group is expected to present preliminary findings early next month, a key step in efforts to restructure fire and emergency medical services.

Negotiators for the city and the union have been discussing ways to downsize the Fire Department while also preserving, and in some cases enhancing, services. The restructuring still hinges on obtaining state approval to borrow money to help pay for upfront costs.

"We're looking at the entire scope of operations," said consultant Philip J. McLaughlin. "We're gathering a lot of data, and we'll be making other trips."

Last week, the Common Council approved a $67,200 contract with MMA. Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese said the study -- coupled with a separate review of how firehouse closings could affect response times -- will provide the city the most comprehensive analysis of fire operations in decades -- possibly since the late 1800s.

"I'm very excited by the way it's evolving," said Matarese. "We're going to end up with a detailed analysis that will give us the ability to provide first-rate fire services in a more efficient way."

Joseph Foley, president of the fire union, said labor leaders have been meeting with consultants and have confidence in their ability to make recommendations for restructuring the department.

City officials, union leaders and consultants all stressed that it's too early to speculate on what the study will recommend, but several key issues have dominated recent discussions, including:

Reducing the overall number of firehouses by building some new facilities in more strategic locations and closing others.

Developing a standard design for what officials called "no frills" but high-functioning fire stations. Both Matarese and the union were critical of the two firehouses that were built in recent years, claiming money was squandered on unnecessary amenities.

"We want firehouses we can live in and work out of. We don't need all the extra stuff," said Foley. "I would rather see any extra money spent on equipment."

Giving firefighters more responsibilities for handling emergency medical services calls. They are already the first responders to such calls, but a private company provides on-site care and ambulance transportation. By assuming some or all EMS duties, officials said, the city could receive substantial revenue from insurance carriers and Medicare.

A significant downsizing of the city's building inspections unit. Under the plan, firefighters would be trained to perform most building inspections, in addition to fire code inspections. Matarese said a similar system being used in the City of Albany is credited with enhancing fire-prevention efforts.

A citizen task force created by Mayor Anthony M. Masiello several months ago to review the fire restructuring is scheduled to meet again in early June to review the consultants' preliminary findings. If the state approves the city's plan to borrow $29 million for the police and fire restructurings, officials predicted some significant changes will be made in fire services over the next 12 months.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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