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Politics and sentiment keep a redundant fire station open

It is nearly to impossible to close an underused school, library or fire hall in Toronto. No matter how much money it will save or how much sense it makes, politics and neighbourhood pressure always get in the way.

Consider the case of fire hall 424. The picturesque 1928 building at 462 Runnymede Rd. in the city's west end has been targeted for closing for more than a quarter century. Again and again, it has dodged fate.

The city's 1987 Fire Master Plan noted that the service area for 424 overlapped with that of a nearby station at 83 Deforest Rd. It recommended closing both and building a new station at a different location. Nothing happened.

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A report by KPMG consultants in 1999 said that, because the city had failed to find an appropriate place to build a new fire station, the fire service should simply close station 424. Nothing happened. In 2007, yet another master plan recommended closing 424, considering how near it is to other fire stations and how little response times would be affected. The station lived on.

In this week's budget negotiations, 424 was once again on the chopping block. Under pressure from Mayor Rob Ford to flatline his budget, fire chief Jim Sales recommended closing the station. But the firefighters union and the local city councillor, Sarah Doucette, fought back. In a last-minute deal to get the budget passed, city council added about $3-million to the fire-service allotment. The extra money allows the service to fund 63 firefighting positions and keep five fire trucks on the road, at least until an efficiency review comes in this summer. It also saves 424 yet again. This little fire station has more lives than a cat.

Ms. Doucette, who led a rally and organized a petition to save 424, calls it a victory for a changing community that is getting more high-rise buildings and may need better fire service in the future. "I appreciate past reports, but we have to look at now and the future. What will my ward need five years, seven years out? That's why I'm so passionate about this. Closing is final, done, gone."

But in a time of tight government budgets and limited economic growth, the city has to make the best possible use of its resources. Keeping a redundant fire station open year after year on the basis of sentiment and community protest is hardly the way.

Three other fire halls lie within a few blocks of 424, which sits in a mainly residential, low-rise neighbourhood. The station gets around 1,300 calls a year, or between three and four calls a day. On the day I visited last week, the four firefighters on 24-hour shift had responded to calls about a fire on the subway tracks, an elderly woman who fell in her apartment and broke her hip and a backhoe that punched through a gas main.

District chief Stephan Powell argues that in a job where seconds make a difference, "I don't think anyone wants to gamble on somebody's life. I don't want to be the actuary who says 'Let's just yank this hall,' and somebody dies."

If that isn't reason enough to keep the hall going, he says, the local community is devoted to it. One resident started a Facebook page to save it. A local artist displayed a painting of it. "This tends to be a walking neighbourhood," he says. "People will visit their local fire hall, frequent the library, frequent the parks." Generations of schoolchildren have come to 424 to learn about firefighting. Only the other day, says veteran firefighter Dwayne Verhey, a woman locked out of her house in the rain with her children came by asking for help. They went and picked her lock.

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That was a nice thing to do, and fire hall 424 is a lovely old place, with its antique bell and classic fire pole. But you have to wonder whether it is reasonable to keep the station open against repeated recommendations to the contrary even from the fire service itself.

It happens again and again with city buildings. A core service review recommended closing a handful of underused libraries in 2011. City council balked. Consultants and studies have repeatedly called for closing schools left half full by declining enrolment. School-board trustees repeatedly push back.

Such stubborn devotion to bricks and mortar makes it hard to deliver services in the efficient way the city should.

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