Tower should boost emergency communications in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — No more static-burdened signals on emergency radio frequencies or so-called “dead zones” in cell phone service in the western end of South Portland. 

That’s the upshot of the Planning Board’s approval Tuesday of a city-owned emergency communications tower at the West End Fire Station off Western Avenue.

The 90-foot tower will host a new 800 MHz radio relay point, a video signal receiver for public safety cameras and space to rent for mobile phone network providers.

“This has always been a need for us,” Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said. He told the Planning Board that a tower was planned during the original construction of the West End Fire Station in 2002, but it was scrapped because of budget constraints.

Since then, he said, emergency radio service in the western part of the city has been strained, especially within the bowels of the Maine Mall or big-box stores. 

A city-owned tower also would allow the Fire Department to remove its radio repeater from the Marriott Hotel on Sable Oaks Drive, where power outages can cripple the system, and save the city the expense of a rental fee.

The video relay point would boost the signal of streaming feeds from cameras at Cash Corner, Casco Bay Bridge and the area of Fairchild Semiconductor and Texas Instruments. 

The city originally wanted a 100-foot tower, but the Federal Aviation Administration chopped the plan by 10 feet. 

Though firm numbers are not in hand, Guimond told the board that the tower and construction costs would total about $80,000.  The money will come from a Fire Department reserve account, but will likely be paid back by rental fees from cell phone companies. 

AT&T is already in talks with the city to buy space on the tower, Guimond said. There will be room for six commercial antennae.

“It’s a win-win. We own this, pay it off within three years, and are provided what we need for communications,” he said.

Community Planner Steve Puleo said none of the 34 neighboring property owners responded to notice about the plan to build the tower. He said they’d likely be happy about the possibility of improved mobile phone capacity.

“It’s kind of a dark spot when it comes to cellular reception,” he said. “It’s not that strong up there.”

The city has licensed Sebago Technics to design the site and will likely request bids within the next month. Guimond said the tower should be built by fall.

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