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Firefighters raise alarm over dedicated TTC lanes


June 19, 2008

Toronto’s fire department says the new dedicated streetcar lanes on St. Clair Avenue West will slow down its fire trucks and make it difficult for the service to “effectively and efficiently” fight fires, pouring new fuel on a slow-burning dispute between the firefighters and the TTC.

Concerns from fire, ambulance and police about the controversial separated transit right-of-way are not new, but the city and the Toronto Transit Commission have always maintained that emergency vehicles could hop the curbs and use the centre transit lanes to get around traffic.

However, a document from the fire department that flies in the face of those assurances released yesterday by city Councillor Cesar Palacio - a long-time opponent of the St. Clair project - clearly caught the TTC off guard.

In the document, a report written in April to answer a query from Mr. Palacio, district chief Robert Leek declares the centre lanes “unsafe” for fire trucks, blaming the line’s centre poles, which hold up the streetcar wires and are unique to that route.

The report says the fire trucks have only six inches of clearance on either side and could scrape the centre poles, snap off rearview mirrors on them, and firefighters or people waiting at streetcar stops could be injured.

“In the extreme, it will cause the apparatus to drive into one of the polls supporting the traction power lines or indeed hit a streetcar head on,” the report reads.

The report also says the lanes are hard to enter and exit for fire vehicles because the curbs, at least six inches high, could damage tires and undercarriages. And it says the narrower car-traffic lanes mean that, along St. Clair, “access for fire fighting is considerably less than it was.”

In an interview yesterday, Fire Chief Bill Stewart endorsed the report, but clarified that his trucks will still use the St. Clair streetcar lanes if the road’s other lanes are blocked by traffic, they just won’t be able to move as quickly.

“It’s not putting lives at risk,” the chief said. “It’s just going to create the opportunity for potential delay.”

TTC vice-chairman Joe Mihevc - whose ward includes the St. Clair project - said the fire department and other emergency services were consulted throughout the design, and that they even tested how well their vehicles mounted the curbs on the TTC’s Queen’s Quay right-of-way.

“Emergency services, all the departments - police, fire, ambulance - had incredible input into this and had frankly signed off on it,” he said.

Chief Stewart disagreed, saying that his department was consulted but that the TTC knows it still had concerns.