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Clarence firehouse debate is over safety Idea for conversion is offered to cut costs

A suggestion that the Town of Clarence's new $3.5 million Harris Hill Fire Hall be closed and used instead as a community center is sparking safety concerns among neighbors, the firefighters and others.

"We'd like to understand what's going on," said Marty Powers, president of the Harris Hill Association, which will meet with the Harris Hill Fire Department to tackle the issue later this month.

"We want to educate ourselves," Powers said. "There is a level of concern."

At the center of the debate is Clarence Councilman Joseph N. Weiss, who has been campaigning to stem rising spending on firefighting and heavily focus on emergency medical services -- which represent the vast majority of calls that firefighters handle.

Weiss has focused much of his attention on the Harris Hill Fire Hall, 8630 Main St., saying that it could be closed because two other firehouses -- those for the Clarence Fire Department and Main Transit Fire Department in Amherst -- are near enough to pick up Harris Hill's calls.

That would leave the 24,000-square-foot Harris Hill Fire Hall, finished in 2006, free to serve as a spacious new community center, he said.

"It would be a great community center," Weiss said. "It's a thought."

Weiss has not made a formal proposal to do so. But already, just the mention of it touches off great hostility from the 50-member Harris Hill Fire Department.

"I don't think there is even the remotest possibility of that happening," said Garry R. Soehner, a Harris Hill volunteer for more than 35 years and the department's current treasurer. "The town, the community, the ISO [which sets standards for insurers] would not allow us to close down."

A representative of the ISO -- or the International Organization for Standardization -- is coming to Clarence this spring to determine the insurability of the town's fire companies.

Soehner said that aside from concerns about a longer response time if Harris Hill closed, it is not clear that the town has the authority to close a fire department -- let alone take over its firehouse.

And he raised the prospect that its volunteers there could leave. As in most firehouses, volunteers are a close-knit group. They wouldn't necessarily want to be transferred elsewhere.

"What would happen to the volunteers?" he asked. "That's not something you can ignore."

The controversy comes at a politically delicate time for town leaders, who in recent years have tried to increase oversight of Clarence's six fire departments -- which like others in New York have a long tradition of operating with great independence.

Wednesday, the Town Board is expected to get an update from Supervisor Scott A. Bylewski on efforts to get a grant for an independent analysis of the town's firefighting services.

To do so, it needs a municipal partner, which Clarence is trying to find.

"We've been talking with a number of municipalities," Bylewski said.

Rising costs for volunteer fire departments are part of why local officials are taking a closer look at how they operate.

The price Clarence pays for firefighting services has increased by almost 130 percent in the last seven years, from $1.37 million in 2002 to $3.13 million this year.

Yet fire calls are relatively few. For instance, Harris Hill answered 624 calls in 2008, but only 32 were for fires. Of those, six involved structures, four involved vehicles, and 22 were "miscellaneous," according to Amherst Central Fire Alarm Office. There were 354 calls involving Emergency Medical Service, 54 for vehicle accidents and 183 listed as miscellaneous.

The data prompts critics, including Weiss, to question why so many fire trucks and other pieces of equipment are needed. Harris Hill has three pumpers, one with a ladder, one heavy rescue truck, one Suburban-style light rescue vehicle, an ambulance and three "chiefs" vehicles, all sport utility vehicles.

Soehner, who has heard complaints about the number of chief vehicles in the past, is quick to say that each SUV is equipped with defibrillators and other emergency equipment. They are "command centers," he said, and vital because chiefs are typically the first responders to calls.

But for Weiss and others, the chief cars are symbolic of excessive spending by fire companies.

"Three gas-guzzling, top-of-the-line SUVs -- that's what I mean," Weiss said. "Why do we need three?"

Powers, of the Harris Hill Association, says his meeting with firefighters will focus more on response time than on price tags, though.

In the 40 years he has lived there, he said, his block -- not even half a mile from the firehouse -- has had three fires.

"The response time was two minutes," Powers said. "I really wouldn't want to see it longer than that."

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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