South Portland seeks emergency communications upgrade

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Upgrades are being planned for the fire and police department communication system that could result in income and savings for City Hall, plus a more efficient system for emergency response.

At the center of the project is planned construction of a new 100-foot tower at the city’s West End Fire Station near Western Avenue. The tower would host a new 800 MHz radio relay point, a point-t0-point microwave video receiver and space to rent for mobile phone network providers.

The tower could cost between $80,000 and $100,000, according to a September memo from City Manager Jim Gailey.

“The radio is the biggest part,” Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said. “On every single call, every emergency response, we use the radio system.”

Currently, there are communication system hubs at the Cash Corner fire station and Central Station on Anthoine Street. Gailey said the signal from those hubs is stretched thin at the western edge of the city, near the Maine Mall.

The new tower, with hubs for the police and fire departments, would boost both signals in that area.

A city-owned tower also would allow the Fire Department to remove its radio repeater from the Marriott Hotel on Sable Oaks Drive, saving the city the expense of a rental fee, Guimond said. That move would also prevent a power outage at the hotel from crippling the system, because the fire station has a backup generator, Guimond said.

The placement of a point-to-point microwave video receiver on the proposed tower would allow better surveillance video quality and cost savings, Guimond said.

The Fire Department uses cameras throughout the city to monitor emergencies when they occur. From his office at Central Station on Anthoine Street, Guimond can survey Cash Corner, the area of Fairchild Semiconductor and Texas Instruments, and the Fore River below the Casco Bay Bridge. 

“It’s a very cool system, but it takes some time to build up,” he said Monday.

The cameras on the west side relay to a receiver at the Cash Corner station, but the distance – two miles from the camera at Texas Instruments – degrades the image quality. A receiver at the closer West End station would help, Guimond said.

Parts of the video network are hard-wired through privately owned fibre optic cables. The city pays about $800 per month, Guimond said, to rent bandwidth on those cables. By switching to a city-owned wireless system, the city can avoid those rental fees.

Guimond said he doesn’t want residents to think they are being monitored, and that the videos are only used to plan responses to emergencies.

“I don’t want anyone to think Big Brother is watching,” he said, “because we’re not.”

Gailey has been working with some mobile network providers interested in renting space on the new tower. Early estimates form the city are that each antenna location could net $24,000 per year.

“We’re having very preliminary conversations with the cell phone companies,” Gailey said. “But they’re very interested in locating some antennas in the area for additional capacity.”

Placing some cell phone antennas on the tower would create more bandwidth for intense-use devices like smart phones and tablet computers as well as “provide new revenue that not only would pay for the tower over time, but provide the City with a revenue stream once the tower is paid off,” Gailey said in the September memo.

He said the design for the tower would include enough height to rent space to up to three private network providers.

Gailey and Guimond presented the plan for the new tower at a City Council workshop in September. The council gave the plan its blessing, allowing the process to move to the planning stage. Gailey said the plan could be before the Planning Board by the end of the year.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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