Emergency system plan on hold in city
Posted: November 6, 2012
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — A project to replace Winchester’s aging emergency communications system is on hold as city officials seek approval to build a new tower.
In September, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rejected the city’s initial application to build a 250-foot communications tower next to its utility site near the end of Jefferson Street.
Lynn Miller, the city’s emergency management coordinator, said the FAA denied the request because the tower would be so much taller than surrounding structures. It also is in the path that airplanes use for Winchester Regional Airport, and there were concerns that the radio waves could affect navigation systems for aircraft making an instrument approach.
The reasoning perplexed local officials because the city has a 167-foot-tall water tower 80 feet south of the desired location that has a 20-foot communications antenna atop it. So they asked how high they could build, considering that a 187-foot structure was nearby, and got an unexpected response.
“They didn’t have it on their records or maps,” City Manager Dale Iman said of the water tower.
The existence of that water tower and antenna changed how the FAA would consider the site, Miller said, so two detailed surveys were done and the information was submitted to the agency.
He said the technical specialists with the FAA have been “super cooperative,” and he’s optimistic the agency will allow a tower to be built there — though it might not be 250 feet tall.
The tower location and height are important to the city’s plans for the project.
“The tower location is extremely critical to the overall project,” Iman said, “because it will determine whether we need to bounce signals off two towers to get full coverage (of the city) or if we can do it with one tower.”
He said the tower issue should be resolved before he’ll sign a nearly $3.6 million contract with Motorola Solutions to design the communications center. With the tower location in limbo, Iman said, signing a contract could be tantamount to “signing a blank check” for changes that might be required based on the FAA’s decision.
If the tower site is rejected again or a shorter tower is approved, he said two antennae may be needed or the city might have to consider leasing space on an existing tower.
After years of discussion, City Council voted in July to move ahead with a project to replace its nearly outdated emergency communications system. Pressing the need is a federal mandate that localities switch to narrowbanding technology by January.
Regardless, the city will have to file a request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to obtain a waiver from the narrowbanding deadline.
The city would like to have a deal signed with Motorola before submitting that waiver request, because it would signify that a project is under way. Miller said all indications are that the FCC would look more favorably on such a request than one that shows little effort to comply with the narrowbanding mandate.
Though the project has again been delayed, Miller said progress is being made.
“We’re closer than we have been,” he said. “I maintain a great deal of optimism about the project at this point as long as the coverage issues are addressed — that’s the critical point.”
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