Friday, November 8, 2019

Public safety under radio silence in the Adirondacks

If you’ve vacationed in the Adirondacks you’ve likely seen pay phones throughout. The economic viability of the quarter-eating telephones speaks to their absolute necessity – vast swaths of the 9,300 square mile Park are without cell coverage.  

As quaint as that may be for those who pine for the “good old days” and the lack of connectedness to the outside world, most of humanity has in rather short time (two decades?) evolved as quickly as our technology, finding absolute reliance on cellular to communicate with friends and work, be in the know about what’s happening in the world, and be connected when danger presents.

While one can certainly survive without the need to chat on the phone or browse the web (you are, after all, on vacation in a wild area), it’s that last point that’s the issue: When emergencies happen people need tools that have become a part of everyday existence – the ability to call 911, warn others, or receive text messages or app notifications from government entities.

You can achieve almost none of that in the Adirondacks, a place where Mother Nature can behave in extremes (extreme cold, snow, and terrain) and so can mankind (extreme sports like snowmobiling and mountain climbing) and there is always potential for extreme outcomes (natural disasters and injuries).

Under such circumstance, the silence afforded by the lack of communications technology can put people at risk.

Residents of and visitors to the Adirondacks saw that in spades recently.

From Halloween into November 1st, we here in Western New York had 60 mile per hour winds and over an inch of rain. The storms strengthened by time they reached the North Country and areas of the Park saw 3.5 to 5.5 inches of rain in short order. It was disastrous, wiping out hiking trails, flooding communities, and washing out roads. Things were so bad that the Governor declared a state of emergency and the DEC advised against hiking the backcountry for more than 2 weeks after the event.

Because of the inability of weather apps to warn people of the growing crisis and government apps to tell people of washed out roads and waterways exceeding their banks, numerous folks were trapped  -- you may have seen daring rescue footage on the Mohawk River just outside of the Park’s southern border. Others became veritable castaways, shutoff from access to civilization as portions of Route 30 ended up underwater and roads like Big Moose were washed out (in either case, to get around those spots could literally take you an hour-and-a-half to two off course).

While this was happening realize that those who do the saving, first responders, were faced with similar communications issues. Not only do they lack the cell access, but their two-way radios are have many blind spots.

That’s an especially pressing issue in the Central Adirondacks from Old Forge to Raquette Lake where firefighters and EMTs have complained about the inability to talk to dispatch and others on or around scene due to the mountainous terrain. In the past, this has made fighting structure fires very dicey and, in this recent event, it made it difficult to convey what was happening and where.

In response to all of these issues, public safety and town officials throughout the region have been, for years now, trying to secure a communications tower in Inlet that would allow virtually seamless public safety transmissions and at the same time afford cell coverage in previously unserved areas.

But, it’s been a tough go, as there have been two significant hurdles…funding and the APA.

Despite the glaring necessity of a tower, those communities have struggled to secure funding for the $500,000 project. Mind you, a state that throws $750 million at Elon Musk’s enterprises and millions at renaming the Tappan Zee bridge in honor of the Governor’s father somehow couldn’t find veritable pocket change to protect residents, tourists and their protectors. Those behind the project had to resort to Go Fund Me-style panhandling, private grant acquisition, and funding from the feds -- they’ve almost reached their goal.

At the same time, they’ve had to go back and forth with the Adirondack Park Agency which oversees development of the Park. While the APA is critical in maintaining the natural wonder of the Adirondacks, this is a case where they’ve gone overboard in devaluing the needs of the people. Under their auspices, towers need to be “substantially invisible” and not intrusive upon the environment and officials have been going back and forth with the APA about design and location for some time. And they need to because with the line-of-sight communications had by VHF, UHF, and microwave communications you need height on towers.

The struggle to put up one simple tower has served as a wake-up call for other communities throughout the Park, which now second-guess their interest and ability to eliminate radio and cell silence in their territories despite the harm it puts people in.

Could this most recent storm serve as a wake-up call, a catalyst for the State and the APA to change their ways and encourage and help communities to erect communications towers?

One should hope so, because property, infrastructure and lives have been in the past and will be lost in the future. And, in many cases, it’s all preventable by simply opening the lines of communications.  

From the 11 November 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News    

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