LA RICS Head Cites Difficulties of Siting Towers at Fire Stations

LAS VEGAS – The head of the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) ripped a firefighters’ union local that has raised concerns that the deployment of cell towers at fire stations to enable broadband service will cause adverse health effects to firefighters due to RF emissions.  “We’re having a hell of a time with the fire union,” LA-RICS Executive Director Pat Mallon said during a session this afternoon at the IWCE show here. “It’s causing all kinds of headaches for us.”

LA-RICS is one of five early builder projects working with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to provide lessons ahead of the nationwide deployment of a public safety broadband network.  Mr. Mallon said that while union leaders cite concerns to firefighters from RF emissions, “I think they’ve got a different agenda.” However, in response to a question, he declined to elaborate on what he believes that agenda is.

Mr. Mallon said the 6 microwatts per square centimeter of emissions outside fire houses from towers is only 1.5% of the FCC limit and is far lower than devices used in fire stations, including microwave ovens (eight times that level) and mobile phones (38.5 times). The response from opponents, he said, has been “don’t bother me with facts. My mind’s made up.”

He said that some firefighters have gone door to door to complain about RF emissions to residents, causing some concern among them on that front. He said the union has cited a 2004 resolution by the International Association of Fire Fighters opposing the deployment of cell towers at fire stations. “It’s antiquated,” he said of the resolution.

Generally, however, he said localities have raised aesthetic concerns about towers and asked for the installation of stealth towers, Mr. Mallon said.  Mr. Mallon expressed concern about the difficulty his project will have in completing spending of its $154.6 million BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program) grant by a Sept. 30 deadline.  The LA-RICS project originally planned to deploy 232 cell sites but now plans to deploy 177 because some independent cities have dropped out because they don’t want additional towers deployed in their jurisdictions, he said.

He said that 50 sites are under construction and there is a need to complete 25 to 30 a month between now and June “in order to get the equipment installed.”

“I’m afraid that it’s going to back things up until Sept. 30 comes and goes,” he said. “That’s my big concern.”

At a Senate hearing last week, FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson said that FirstNet has changed its thinking on requiring an inventory of public assets in states as an early step in the process, noting that LA-RICS has showed how difficult it can be to sign agreements with localities (TRDaily, March 11).

Other early builder project representatives said today they have not experienced the same problem that LA-RICS has had in deploying towers at fire stations. “Actually, they’re saying, ‘Can we have more,’” said Fred Scalera, public safety broadband manager for the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

Walt Leslie, assistant director-technology for the Adams County, Colo., Communications Center, said multiple cell sites being used in his network are being deployed at fire stations.

Meanwhile, during today’s session FirstNet acting Chief Technical Officer Jeff Bratcher offered a vigorous defense of criticism from the Government Accountability Office at last week’s hearing that FirstNet should do a better job of evaluating lessons learned from the five early builder projects.

More specifically, GAO said that “FirstNet has taken steps to collect and evaluate information and lessons … but could do more to ensure that it properly evaluates and incorporates these lessons. For example, FirstNet has asked the projects to report on the experiences of their networks’ users and has assigned contractors to collect and log lessons. However, preliminary results indicate that FirstNet does not have a plan that clearly articulates how it will evaluate those experiences and lessons.”

Mr. Bratcher said FirstNet has developed standard operating plans for each early builder and is tracking their development, including through the requirement that weekly and quarterly reports be submitted “tracking compliance to the lease agreement and the key learning plans.” He said he was “shocked” by the criticism from GAO, saying that FirstNet has collected nearly 100 key learnings so far. He also noted that GAO’s testimony last week was based on preliminary findings and he said FirstNet has provided information to GAO for its upcoming final report.

Several representatives of early builder projects said they have had a great relationship with FirstNet and were surprised by GAO’s criticism.

Jacque Miller, deputy chief information officer for the state of New Mexico, said communications between early builders and FirstNet involves a collaborative effort. “It’s not just a canned report that we’re sending back and forth,” she said. “It’s actually a conversation … about how the project is moving forward.”

Mr. Leslie said GAO visited his project as long as nine months ago. “Maybe at that time, all of the processes hadn’t been identified by FirstNet” to track early builder projects, he said.- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com