RAY BROOK - One of the biggest and most complex telecommunications projects the state Adirondack Park Agency has ever seen is set to come before the APA board for a decision Thursday.
Essex County is proposing a new public safety communications system and shared microwave network in partnership with New York State Police and New York State Electric and Gas. The project involves the installation of telecommunications infrastructure at 14 locations in 12 towns in the Park, including 57 new antennas and several new and replacement radio towers. The county also bought a mountain for the project.
Despite its size and scope, the project has so far generated little controversy or comment. As of Friday, APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the agency hadn't received a single letter on the proposal.
That's a far cry from the last major county emergency radio project to come before the agency. Saratoga County's 2002 plan to put up a series of mountaintop towers sparked a public feud between county officials and the APA and environmental groups, mainly over the visibility of the towers. The dispute wasn't settled until 2006, when the county withdrew its original proposal and submitted a revised plan that better fit the "substantial invisibility" clause in the agency's 2002 towers policy.
In contrast, Essex County's emergency radio project is drawing praise from some environmentalists.
"It's much, much more complicated than the Saratoga County project was, and we have to give it very high marks for environmental sensitivity," said Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan. "It's nice to not have a controversy for a change."
Essex County Emergency Services Director Donald Jaquish said the county has been working on plans to upgrade its outdated communications system since 2005, if not earlier.
"Our fire and EMS, and the sheriff's radios were built in the '50s; we literally have tube radios," Jaquish said. "Our radio maintenance contractor said they can't maintain our system anymore. It's old. It's shot.
"During (Tropical Storm) Irene, we lost our radio system for over 24 hours, which was life threatening in some cases. There were rescues taking place we didn't know about, nor could we talk back and forth with our fire and EMS. You can't have that."
Plus, the existing system only covers 60 percent of the county, and it also has interference problems that make it unusable in certain locations, Jaquish said.
The new emergency communications network will provide 95 percent coverage, Jaquish said. It will allow the county 911 center in Lewis to dispatch all the fire, police, ambulance and highway departments in the county, and allow them to communicate with each other. The microwave network will link each tower in the system together and connect with the county's dispatch center. It's set up in a loop that can operate in either direction should one site go down.
"It's interoperability at its best," Jaquish said. "It's going to give us resiliency that we never had and coverage we've never had."
The project includes the construction of two new towers, one on Belfry Mountain in Moriah, the other on Saddle Hill in Lewis. Existing towers on Mount Morris in Tupper Lake and Wells Hill in Lewis will be replaced.
Dozens of antennas and microwave dishes will be co-located on existing towers on Mount Pisgah in Saranac Lake, Blue Mountain in Blue Mountain Lake, Gore Mountain in North Creek and several other sites.
The county is building a new ski patrol shack on the summit of Little Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington. A microwave dish will be housed inside a rooftop cupola that's designed to look like a clock, Jaquish said.
The county also opted to purchase Terry Mountain in the town of Peru, home to four towers including a 900-foot tower the county plans to use as part of its network.
"We bought the thing for a lot less than it would have cost us in a 10-year period to keep six antennas there," Jaquish said.
The system will also include two out-of-the-Park sites, one on Grandpa's Knob, Vt., and another in Plattsburgh.
Jaquish said the project has been designed to minimize the visibility of the towers and any other infrastructure.
"We've done visual analysis," he said. "We've hired companies to launch balloons. We certainly tried to locate on existing towers. I don't think there will be any visual impacts."
Sheehan said his environmental group had issues with the visibility of some of the towers in an earlier version of the project; "however, they have reworked it pretty well and eliminated all of our concerns."
One of the Council's concerns was that construction of the new ski patrol building on Little Whiteface, if it was done at the wrong time of the year, could impact the Bicknell's thrush, a rare bird that breeds at high elevations in the Adirondacks and other mountains of the Northeast.
"They've eliminated any activity or construction between May and August on that location at Little Whiteface," Sheehan said. "That will avoid any conflict with the bird's breeding season."
"This shows there are ways to design these kinds of projects that are environmentally and scenically friendly. It might take a little extra time, but it's worth it in the Park to do that."
The project will cost $16 million, to be split up among the three partners. Essex County's share is roughly $10 million. The county has approved the issuance of a bond for that amount, although Jaquish hopes to offset that cost with grant money.
The project will come before the APA's Regulatory Programs Committee Thursday morning.
Even if the agency approves the project, Jaquish said the county still needs to get permits from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for the work on Gore and Little Whiteface mountains.
He said he hopes construction can begin in the spring so the new system can potentially go online in the fall of next year.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or email@example.com.