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New simulator to help train firefighters to drive trucks safely

Driving a massive firetruck down narrow or snow-clogged streets requires extensive training.

One mistake can damage trucks worth $750,000 and cause injuries or even deaths.

Buffalo's Fire Department has snared a federal grant to buy the city's first firetruck-driving simulator system. By fall 2012, trainees will be able to practice driving in a simulator that will resemble the cab of a fire truck with a 360-degree view. Weather patterns and other conditions can be changed with the stroke of a key.

The $322,400 grant was announced Friday by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who joined Mayor Byron W. Brown at a news conference in fire headquarters on Court Street.

Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said the department always has used trucks for training. Using a simulator in the early phases of training will save on wear and tear.

"People make mistakes out in the streets. We take off mirrors, hydrants or whatever through our training," Whitfield said. "We have to train, and this will provide us with a much safer environment to train in."

Whitfield said the department has dozens of vehicle-related accidents each year, most of them relatively minor. But he noted that some mishaps can be costly.

Higgins was an original co-sponsor of a federal program that has provided more than $13 million in grants to local fire companies in the past five years. But he said the grant program has expired.

"I'm deeply concerned about what that may mean for public safety in communities like Western New York in the future," said Higgins, who was recently appointed to the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Brown said the city has taken steps each year for several years to modernize its Fire Department. Last fall, the city opened a new $3.9 million fire station in the Bailey-Kensington neighborhood.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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