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budget battle

Toronto fire trucks.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

The president of the Toronto firefighters union and a west-end councillor are warning of serious risks to public safety if the city goes ahead with a plan to close one fire station near High Park and reduce four others to one-truck operations.

The proposed cuts are part of the fire department's effort to hold the line on its 2013 budget, as Mayor Rob Ford's administration and the city manager have asked of every municipal department and agency.

So far this year, the budget battle in Canada's largest city has centred on Toronto police – where Chief Bill Blair is fighting a freeze he says would lead to layoffs – but the new details revealed Friday are likely to shift some of that focus to Toronto Fire Services.

"I'm concerned over response times, most definitely," said Sarah Doucette, the councillor for Ward 13 Parkdale-High Park, home to the fire hall slated to close. "You're dealing with people's lives and you're dealing with the buildings people live in, their homes."

She has called an emergency public meeting for Sunday in a bid to prevent the shuttering of the firehouse at 426 Runnymede Rd., between Bloor and Annette streets.

The Runnymede fire station was singled out for closing in a budget briefing note from Toronto's newly appointed fire chief, Jim Sales. The document identifies four other stations affected by the proposed cuts. They are the firehouses at 1549 Albion Rd. in North Etobicoke; 5318 Lawrence Ave. E. in Scarborough; 840 Gerrard St. E. in South Riverdale; and 7 Lapsley Rd. in Scarborough. All would be reduced to one truck from two if the full council endorses the fire department's budget in January.

Chief Sales says permanently pulling five fire trucks out of service would amount to little more than formalizing the reality on the ground, where 104 vacant fire jobs in 2012 left an average of 5.5 of 128 trucks sitting idle daily.

"We're basically formalizing a process where trucks were taken out at random," he said Friday. "Now we're suggesting specific trucks that, of the 128, perhaps are the easiest to replace."

Chief Sales said that Runnymede station and the other four wound up on the hit list because of low call volumes and excellent response times in the areas. "These were our top five choices," he said. "They're the best choices we can make."

In the case of Runnymede, there is another one-truck station just over one kilometre away, at 83 Deforest Rd., and two other fire stations in Ms. Doucette's ward. Studies dating as far back as 1987 have targeted Runnymede station for closing, but the previous plans envisioned replacing the neighbourhood's two small stations with one new fire hall for which land has never been identified.

None of that matters to Ed Kennedy, the president of the Toronto Professional Firefighters Association, who dismissed the suggestion that the cuts would not make much difference.

"Minimal impact in our business is pretty serious," Mr. Kennedy said. "In our business, seconds count. If you don't have the proper staffing levels on scene quick enough … then you are going to be putting citizens at risk if it takes longer."

Mr. Kennedy pointed out that Toronto's fire department already falls short of the North American standard that the first truck reach a scene in 240 seconds, or four minutes, 90 per cent of the time. Toronto's average is 287 seconds.

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