Coast Guard seeks taller communications tower at Peaked Hill
Tuesday evening United States Coast Guard (USCG) officials traveled to a public hearing in Chilmark town hall to describe "Rescue 21," the name given to a multi-million dollar nationwide overhaul of the Coast Guard's outdated national distress and response radio system.
Chilmark is the latest stop in a deployment effort that so far provides advanced search and communications capabilities for 13,500 miles of coastline and will affect all boaters in waters surrounding the Island. Rescue 21 enables the Coast Guard to immediately fix the location of a distress call no matter how short its duration and in many cases identify the name of the vessel where a call originated.
The Coast Guard wants town approval to replace its current 48-foot radio tower and support equipment on Peaked Hill with a 113-foot tower that would be a link between antennas on Block Island and Nantucket in USCG Sector Southeast New England. The height, needed to mount specialized direction finding antennas, is the focus of environmental concerns by Peaked Hill abutters and selectman Warren Doty.
Coast Guard officials said Tuesday that they have no good alternative sites, and that Peaked Hill is the best location.
A tragic bond links Martha's Vineyard to Rescue 21. The impetus for a new system began with a barely audible distress call on March 25, 1990, from the waters south of Nomans Land, an area known for poor radio reception.
"This is vessel Sol E Mar. This is a mayday. This is fishing vessel Sol E Mar. We're sinking. We need help now."
One minute later a second radio transmission with laughter followed. "S-O-S, I'm sinking."
The Coast Guardsmen on watch, thinking the second call was a hoax, also ignored the first call. Four days later the Sol-E-Mar was reported missing and fishing captain William Hokanson and his 19-year-old son William Jr. of Fairhaven were lost at sea.
In the aftermath of that incident the Coast Guard revamped its procedures for responding to distress calls. And in November 1990 the Studds Act, named for former Massachusetts 10th District Congressman Gerry Studds, the author of the legislation, provided for six years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines, plus civil penalties equaling the cost of the search, for anyone convicted of making a hoax call.
Thomas A. Tansey, Rescue 21 environmental manager, travels around the United States paving the way for the new system. A former Coast Guard commandant, he is intimately familiar with the responsibilities of Coast Guard service, and speaks about Rescue 21 with the conviction of a man on a mission.
Tuesday night he presented a power point presentation (available here in pdf form) that described the features of the new system. It will pick up a signal from a one-watt marine VHF radio and provide a line of bearing out to 20 nautical miles. The caller will only have to key the microphone for half a second.
Recounting a Coast Guard experience, Mr. Tansey said he could remember holding up a tape recorder to a radio to record a transmission. The new system provides a digital recording of every radio transmission and those signals are represented as lines on a computer display screen.
His presentation included a graphic of a screen display that showed the coast of New Jersey and a series of intersecting lines from current antennas to the position of the fishing vessel Captain Joe, which put out a Mayday call on March 12. The Coast Guard received the Mayday at 8:45 pm. Captain Joe's crew was unable to provide a position. Four Rescue 21 antennas provided lines of bearings and a Coast Guard helicopter saved the four fishermen on board.
Another feature is known as digital selective calling (DSC). All new fixed VHF radios feature a small red button that a boater can press in an emergency. If the boater has registered the radio and connected it to a GPS unit the Coast Guard will be able to identify the boater and the exact position of the boat.
The entire installation will include a new concrete shelter to house communications equipment, a new emergency generator and propane tank. The shelter site will be fully screened with trees and plantings so it will no longer be visible. The entire project is expected to cost the USCG approximately $800,000.
Dukes County and the town will continue to be able to use the tower for public safety equipment. Relocating that equipment is expected to cost the town and county less than $20,000.
Following the presentation, Mr. Doty said the fact that the antenna would be put in the middle of a conservation area was of great concern to him and some nearby residents. Mr. Doty handed Coast Guard representatives three pages containing a list of 30 written questions related to the new tower and the existing tower.
In his comments Mr. Doty questioned the need for a higher tower and the amount of power the new antennas would emit. He asked if the Edgartown water tower was considered.
Mr. Tansey said the existing site was a radar installation before it was conservation land and at 300 feet that was where they wanted to be. He said the Coast Guard preferred to use an existing facility and no other Island locations provided the needed height and lack of interference from other equipment.
Mr. Doty suggested that the existing system was adequate. Mr. Tansey said that, irrespective of the voters' decision, the existing system would be decommissioned. One alternative would be to erect a high tower on the federally owned Station Menemsha. If another suitable site is not found, there will be a pie-shaped gap in coverage. All of which would set back the new system.
USCG Lieutenant Francis Paula, project engineer, said there would be no increase in wattage. The exposure would be similar to that encountered walking down the dock in Menemsha.
Speaking in support of the proposal, Chilmark harbormaster Dennis Jason recounted his experience as a Coast Guardsman when there was only a traditional VHF mayday call. "I can remember the anxiety of looking for someone when you didn't know where you were going," said Mr. Jason.
Selectman J.B. Riggs Parker said there was no question that the system was needed. "It is no higher than some of the windmills going up," said Mr. Parker.
Several members of the public attended the hearing. Richard Lester, a specialist in electromagnetic fields with Cambridge Environmental, a Cambridge consulting firm, asked about increased use. Mr. Tansey said the number of calls would remain the same but the CG would be able to hear more calls.
Mr. Lester told The Times that he represented an abutter who he was asked not to identify.
David Carlson, a seasonal resident from New York, said he was supportive and thought it was a great system. He said his concern was looking for alternative sites such as the dump or Nomans Land.
Mr. Carlson, who bought his property in 2004, said the reason the Open Land Foundation bought the land is that it is such a special site. He said the abutters were not against the tower, only the scale.
The names Peaked Hill and Radar Hill are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the series of hills that make up the highest points above sea level on the Vineyard. A World War II era radar installation sat atop the hill until the 1950s.
In 1975 the Vineyard Open Land Foundation bought a parcel on top of the hill, land it later gave to the town, to prevent the construction of a house and preserve the view for the public. The town purchased a conservation restriction. In 1992 the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank purchased an adjacent 71.6 acres and the town purchased a nearby 20-acre parcel that is accessible from Tabor House Road.
At the urging of public safety officials, in January 2000 voters approved a measure allowing for placement of the 40-foot radio tower. Legislation, approved the following year, allowed for the tower.
The antenna improved EMT and police radio communication with certain areas of Chilmark and Aquinnah. It also filled the radio coverage gap that has existed for a number of years south of the Island, Coast Guard officials said at the time.