- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

HAGERSTOWN, Md. It's not your imagination. The towers really are getting taller.
From the Eastern Shore to the western mountains, along highways and atop ridges, communications towers are rising that dwarf anything in sight.
Scraping the sky up to 600 feet, they are the tent poles of Maryland's future emergency communications coverage. State and county officials plan to erect about 200 of them by 2010 to replace the jumble of mismatched radio systems that currently prevents many police, fire and rescue agencies from talking to to each other.
The plan has met with static, though, from rural and historic preservationists. They say such tall towers cause serious scenic disruptions. In one case, the administration of Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening agreed, ordering a search for alternatives to a proposed mountaintop tower in Western Maryland.
Paul M. Rosa, executive director of the Harpers Ferry Conservancy, has led the fight to redesign the tower planned for Lamb's Knoll, a peak along the Appalachian Trail atop South Mountain on the Frederick-Washington county line.
"We have taken the position from day one that this is not an either-or situation," he said. "Our position is, the public can enjoy reliable public service communications while preserving rural, scenic and historic character. We can have both."
On Aug. 1, Mr. Glendening ordered another look at Lamb's Knoll. The officials who have overseen the $100 million statewide project for the past three years say they are willing to consider alternatives to the planned 180-foot tower atop the 1,758-foot peak with reservations.
"It's a fine line to tread" between environmental issues and "the critical need for public safety communications," Thomas H. Miller, co-chairman of the Maryland Communications Infrastructure Committee, said. Mr. Miller also is communications director for the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services.
The committee's other co-chairman, State Highway Administration Communications Chief Craig Fetzer, was more blunt. Without the planned improvements, "the only people that are going to wind up paying is someone at their house having a heart attack," he said. "We've got to do something in this state if public safety's going to have communications."
Today, public safety communications use various radio frequencies, based largely on what channels were available when each agency got its equipment. The state police are on 39 megahertz; some county sheriff's departments are on 800 megahertz. It's like the difference between an AM radio and a cellular telephone: Both use radio waves, but they can't read each other's signals.
That means state troopers must carry numerous radios to stay in touch with local law-enforcement agencies.
In a big emergency, such as the La Plata tornado in April, radios from a dozen different agencies were stacked in a mobile command center so information could be relayed among responders, Mr. Fetzer said.
"It's organized chaos," he said.
After the September 11 terror attacks revealed similar flaws in New York's emergency communications, Maryland spent $400,000 on "cross-band connectors," which link multiple frequencies. Mr. Miller called such solutions "Band-Aid workarounds" with "significant limitations."
The taller towers are designed to allow 11 state agencies, as well as county public safety agencies, to communicate at 800 megahertz on channels the Federal Communications Commission is making available across the country as part of a shift from analog to digital TV broadcasting, Mr. Miller said.
As the taller towers go up, some of the 250 existing emergency communications towers many in the 125-to-150-foot range will come down.
That includes a decrepit, 90-foot fire lookout tower at Lamb's Knoll on which many public safety antennas are mounted.
Mr. Rosa, whose organization is based across the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and Paul Gilligan, chairman of the Mid-Maryland Land Trust Association, want the state to consider replacing the 63-year-old fire tower with a cluster of shorter towers. They say such towers, perhaps camouflaged as trees, could be built in a clearing that would satisfy the technology's line-of-sight requirements but be less visible than a big tower.
The pastoral area attracts thousands of visitors annually, drawn by the Appalachian Trail, the South Mountain State Battlefield and the nearby Antietam National Battlefield, site of the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War.
Mr. Gilligan said those who seem reluctant to reconsider the tower plan made a bad decision, and "now that they made it, they're out to defend it."
Mr. Miller and Mr. Fetzer say the alternatives proposed by Lamb's Knoll tower opponents may be technically feasible but would be costlier than planned.
Washington County Commissioner Bert Iseminger has questioned both the Lamb's Knoll plan and a 330-foot tower the state has proposed building along Interstate 70 just outside Hagerstown. Mr. Iseminger said the state should have to justify the need for and location of such projects, just as private tower builders are required to do under county zoning rules.
"I guess it's inevitable we're going to have to build some of these towers, but certainly we have to make sure they are absolutely necessary and will be located in spots where they are as least intrusive on the skyscape as possible," he said.


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