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BEHIND THE SCENES: Niagara police and emergency services ready for biggest crowds ever

Niagara-on-the-Lake Local's Mike Balsom takes us behind the scenes

In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.

These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here

Today's spotlight is on's Mike Balsom, whose story 'ECLIPSE 2024: Niagara police and emergency services ready for biggest crowds ever' was published on March 26.

Here is the original story if you need to catch up:​

If what happened when the path of totality of a solar eclipse wound its way across the United States in August 2017 is any indication, Niagara’s population could more than triple between  April 5 and 8. 

In the state of Nebraska, with just two million residents, 500,000 eclipse watchers reportedly visited on August 21 that year. Spring City, Tennessee, population 2,000, welcomed five times that many people on the big day. As many as two million flocked to the state of South Carolina, most descending on the city of Charleston, the last large centre where the totality of the eclipse was visible before moving on over the Atlantic Ocean. 

Constable Phil Gavin, media relations officer with the Niagara Regional Police Service, has studied those numbers and heard anecdotal tales of the crowds across the US in 2017.

“Fourteen states were involved in the path of totality that year,” Gavin said in an interview on YourTV recently. “From that, a lot of research has been done. Millions of people travelled to those areas. Traffic congestion and the management of it is one of the big takeaways from that event.”

Through communication between the NRPS and officials from Niagara Falls, Gavin has determined that nearly all of that city’s approximately 14,000 hotel rooms are fully booked as of Friday, April 5. He expects the congestion on the region’s highways and other roads to start at least by that day.

Niagara, and specifically Niagara Falls, is a major tourism destination even without an eclipse. In an article published in January, National Geographic Magazine named the city of Niagara Falls, New York as the most picturesque location to view the celestial phenomenon. Its Canadian namesake has basked in the glow of that recommendation from this side of the river. 

Niagara Falls, Ontario mayor Jim Diodati says the city is poised to to welcome its biggest crowds ever on April 8. Even bigger than the crowds for any previous New Year’s Eve concert or Nik Wallenda’s 2012 tightrope walk across the falls, estimated at 125,000 to 130,000 people. Diodati has been warned that the city should expect eight to nine times that number for the eclipse. 

“They’ll be coming for the eclipse but staying for the tourism and events,” Gavin said. “It’s going to affect a lot of the region. We also expect big crowds in Fort Erie and Port Colborne.”

For the NRPS, emergency preparedness is the major focus. 

“We are going to see an unprecedented number of people coming to the Niagara region,” Gavin predicted. “Emergency preparedness in terms of planning ahead if you are a local or a business, is paramount.”

Long traffic jams on the region’s highways will be a reality, he warns. Visitors to the region should plan to have extra supplies in their car, including food and water. 

“There is a finite number of vehicles that the roads of Niagara will hold,” he explained. “This event is likely to exceed that number. What that congestion will look like might be unprecedented to Niagara.”

Gavin suggests anyone heading to the Honeymoon City should consult with Google Maps or whatever navigation system they use for alternate entry routes.

“Most will come down (Highway) 420 toward Stanley Avenue, and that’s where they’re going to get stuck for a few hours,” he said. “But there are lots of ways in and lots of ways out. Do your research ahead of time.”

Getting into the region is one thing. Getting out of the region, Gavin warns, is another. 

He added, “Thousands of people will be leaving the region at about the same time. We are hoping that the concert in Victoria Park will keep people there through to the evening.” 

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra will play a prelude to the solar eclipse there beginning at 2:30 p.m. Following the eclipse, The Glorious Sons, JJ Wilde, New Friends and The Boneheads will be performing until about 10 p.m.

For the NRPS, it’s all hands on deck that Monday. Gavin said officers who are usually not in uniform will be redeployed to support the effort on the ground. And they are working with other partners at the law enforcement level locally, provincially and federally, including the Coast Guard. 

And they are planning ways for police, fire and emergency services to best respond to any situations that might arise amid the potential overcrowding. 

“We are establishing emergency routes, at least three into the more tourism-heavy areas of Niagara Falls,” he said. “There will be clear paths left open only to local traffic. That will allow emergency ambulance, fire trucks or police vehicles to get in, do what they have to do, and get out.”

As well, the city of Niagara Falls announced this Monday that the Niagara Parkway will be closed to vehicular traffic from Queen Street to Fraser Hill beginning at noon until midnight. Clifton Hill from Victoria Avenue to Falls Avenue will also be closed to vehicular traffic beginning during that same time, along with Murray Street from the Niagara Parkway to Fallsview Boulevard.

Road closures are also planned for the Town of Fort Erie on April 8. Beginning at 8 a.m., the south Niagara Parkway (Niagara Boulevard) will be closed in both directions from Central Avenue to Dominion Road, as well as Dominion to Albert Street. As a reminder, the south Niagara Parkway remains closed from Netherby Road to Townline Road. with a detour in place, due to construction on the Black Creek Bridge.

Another concern related to emergency response is the reliability of cell phone service with so many devices being used in the area. There could potentially be an interruption in internet accessibility hindering communication with emergency services. Gavin said they are working with partners on alternative ways of communicating important information during the eclipse. 

Finally, Gavin suggests that local residents should ensure all of their vehicles are fueled up and that they have stocked up on the most needed household supplies to limit their need to travel to areas congested by traffic.

More information is available on the NRPS website

In addition to being a reporter for The Local, Mike Balsom is also the host of The Source on YourTV Niagara. On April 8 he will be hosting YourTV’s live coverage of the total eclipse, beginning at 2 p.m. from Niagara Falls.

Other ECLIPSE 2024 articles in the NOTL Local: 

St. Davids students take a trip to the moon

Provincial task force has been key in preparing for the eclipse

Whether through special glasses or a colander, watch it safely

The science, mathematics and history behind it