There is no fire chief.

The overtime budget, used to cover unfilled firefighter positions and those who are out of work with injuries, has been slashed dramatically by the City Council.

There are virtually no fire inspectors or arson investigators anymore. They’ve been re-deployed to beef up manpower at Cataract City fire houses.

Now, while all five current fire houses remain open, for the moment, there will be less firefighting equipment available to hit the streets to battle blazes.

Some folks in the fire department are wondering if things could get any worse.

Falls City Administrator Daniel Bristol, saying the 2006 city budget, finalized by the Council a week ago, leaves him no choice, announced on the eve of Christmas that he would order the “decommissioning” of two active pieces of fire apparatus.

Bristol, who has taken “administrative control” of the department, following the resignation last week of Fire Chief John Jacoby, wrote in a memo to Battalion Chief Lou Michel, that there isn’t enough money allocated in the budget to keep the city’s current fleet of two ladder trucks and five pumpers running.

“After a complete analysis of the appropriated funds allocated in the 2006 budget for the operation of the Fire Department ... I have concluded that the present amount and mix of active apparatus is unsustainable,” the administrator wrote. “Please provide your advice and recommendation ... of two active apparatus to transfer to our reserve fleet.”

Bristol told Michel he wants an answer as soon as possible. The administrator said the city will drop down to just five pieces of firefighting equipment at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

“Their (the Council’s) actions are not without consequences,” Bristol said.

The consequence, in this case, could be the closure of one of the city’s five fire houses. Though Bristol said he does not have the authority, nor is their a need to shut a fire hall.

“The cost of operating the fire halls is in the 2006 budget,” the administrator said. “It’s insufficient personnel and overtime to keep the equipment operating that is driving this. I can not close fire halls, I can only close equipment.”

Bristol said the City Corporation Counsel has advised him that only the City Council has the power or authority to close a fire station. Yet he admits, the practical effect of taking two pieces of equipment out of service could do just that.

“Well, you’d still have a fire hall, but it would be non-functioning,” Bristol said. “It would be kind of like a garage. If that’s the way the department decides to divide the department up.”

Councilman Lewis “Babe” Rotella has indicated that cuts in department overtime were necessary to reduce an increase in city property taxes. Rotella said the transfers of arson and fire investigators was necessary to “back fill” positions of currently disabled fire fighters, which would also reduce the need for overtime to fill staffing vacancies.

Fire officials are reportedly studying the administrator’s directive to decide how to handle the decommissioning. The firefighters union is also concerned.

“I think everything is pretty much up in the air right now,” said Niagara Falls Fire Fighters Association President Joseph Pedulla. “Depending on what pieces of equipment they close, it may result in the closure of a fire house.”

Pedulla said the union is now in negotiations with the city in an effort to craft a “one year” group of contract concessions in an attempt to keep all the current equipment in service.

“Any closure (of fire halls) or decommissioning (of equipment) will be a reduction in service to the community,” Pedulla said. “Our concern is for the safety of the community. We fought to increase rig staffing for the safety of our members, but now the reduction in equipment and service could cause injury to (city) residents.”

While Bristol said he didn’t know if reducing the amount of equipment would effect response time to fires, Pedulla said few pieces of apparatus would dramatically increase response time.

“There is no doubt in my mind that you can reduce the amount of equipment and not effect response time,” the union chief said. “It may only be a matter of minutes, but one or two minutes can be critical, the difference between saving a home and losing it.”

The reduction in fire equipment would also coincide with the grand opening of the new Seneca Niagara Casino hotel. Before his resignation, Jacoby had said he was confident the department was prepared to handle any possible fire threat in the new 26 story high rise.

Though former fire chief did caution that his assessment was based on adequate manpower.

Pedulla said reducing available equipment will undermine the department’s ability to respond to high-rise fires.

“Fighting a high-rise fire takes every piece of equipment we have right now,” Pedulla said. “If these cuts go through, there’s no way we’ll be able to handle that. We won’t be OK.”