Editorial : A matter of safety at sea
At their April 28 annual town meeting, Chilmark voters will consider a request by the Coast Guard to replace the existing 48-foot public safety antenna at Peaked Hill with a 113-foot pole antenna.
Raising the existing antenna needed voter approval and a special act of the state legislature to modify the language of the conservation restrictions that protect the top of Peaked Hill.
Voters agreed, though they expressly excluded cellular companies from sharing antenna space. They demanded language barring all commercial use. The Coast Guard request has no commercial implications. It's about safety.
Critics of the proposal, mostly nearby residents who were not named and did not appear at Tuesday's public meeting to discuss the Coast Guard request, complained that the current installation has degraded a uniquely exalted hilltop, with a 360-degree view. Critics had in mind the cleared and fenced enclosure on the hilltop.
"It just sounds to me like a slippery slope," Warren Doty, the Chilmark selectman, said Tuesday. "We allowed this installation in a conservation area and now they want to make it bigger, and they'll make it bigger again. I think it's a mistake for the town to say yes to that."
Mr. Doty criticized the plan in terms similar to those raised on behalf of some Peaked Hill neighbors. The selectman also proposed some technological alternatives - EPIRBs and radios - that he said could do what the new tower and the digital communication system it supports are designed to do.
Mr. Doty also advanced the special-ness objection. "Peaked Hill is a very special spot for us," he said. "Allowing a tall tower on top of it... is just wrong for the town."
The Chilmark proposal is part of a nationwide Coast Guard program to replace old-technology coastal communications equipment. The Coast Guard believes the new system will greatly enhance search capabilities along the coast.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Stephen Barr, Officer in Charge of Coast Guard Station Menemsha, outlined for participants in the Tuesday gathering the premier features of the new, digital technology. It will enable Coast Guard radio monitors to determine the precise location of a mariner in distress, even if the radioed request for assistance is cut short, even if the distressed mariner, because of fear or confusion, is himself unclear about his vessel's location, even if the transmission is a hoax. Hoax distress calls drain time and resources, and they are illegal.
Today, Coast Guard rescue crews, afloat and in the air, use positions given them by endangered mariners, vectors calculated using on-site wind and current information, and search patterns that have proven useful in the past to locate distressed yachtsmen, fishermen, or commercial mariners. It's a dangerous business, for the hunters as well as the hunted. The new, enhanced communication system will permit the Coast Guard to know quickly where to look, even on the basis of a mere moment's transmission from the endangered seaman.
"We spend hundreds of hours a year searching because we heard a distress call," Chief Barr said, describing how the Coast Guard does its lifesaving work today and how its efforts will be enhanced by the new system, of which the Peaked Hill tower is a part. "This really takes the search out of our job." So, here is a question for Chilmark voters that should be an easy yes vote, a yes vote for the safety of those at sea.