Rhodes Drive Public Safety Communication Tower

by Robert Cohen Wrentham, MA

Town meeting recently approved an expenditure of $60,000 to set up a communication tower for Police, Fire, and Civil Defense on Rhodes Drive near the water tank. The proponents represented to the public a clear and present need, “To improve Public Safety Communications to the west end of Town.” They have further represented this is the best and only site for the purpose. Therefore, the expense is urgent and necessary. And that the town’s needs could be met for $60,000.

This is not true. Currently the Police and Fire communications arrays sit on a 125 foot tall amateur radio tower and antenna located on the Big Apple Farm on what is one of the higher if not the highest point in Wrentham.

In keeping with with a long established tradition, the property owner (and co-owner of Big Apple Farm) Tom Morse, has donated–as in free–this use to the town, originally on his barn and now on his amateur radio tower. In a phone conversation between Mr. Morse and me, he expressed a willingness to follow tradition for the foreseeable future, or as he put it, at least until he dies.

As part of Mr. Morse’s amateur radio antenna permitting process, the Planning Board hired (at the applicant’s expense) Leonard E. Kay, Ph.D., P.E, an engineer, to perform an objective analysis of the tower’s impact to the surrounding community. One of the products of that study was an Area Coverage Analysis.

Dr. Kay conducted his tests, submitted a report, and gave testimony to the Planning Board in an open meeting. The public was invited. Using standard scientific and engineering practices, he demonstrated that the tower on Mr. Morse’s property could easily reach the low lying radio “dead spots” in West Wrentham.

By contrast, the proponents of the Rhodes Drive tower conducted non-scientific tests which involved driving the Fire Department ladder truck to a place near the Rhodes Drive site, raising the ladder, placing communication equipment on the top, and performing limited trial-and-error testing.

At the Board of Selectmen’s request, the Capital Budget and Planning Committee held an emergency meeting on 10/27/2007 to consider including a requisition for the funds necessary to construct the tower on the Rhodes Drive site.The initial earmark on the November Warrant was supposed to be based on an estimate by Comtronics, the vendor chosen for the job, which, according to Jack McFeeley, was to have, “four main components to the quote, Pad construction, Rigging the towers and antennae, electrical work and component purchases and installation.” (email to Capital Budget Planning Committee, 11/1/2007)

The Capital Budget Planning Committee, of which I am a member, never received a copy of the estimate in time for its deliberations at the 10/27 emergency meeting. Neither was there a properly filed Capital Expenditure/Item Request Form on hand. Nevertheless, everyone on the CBPC but I voted to place the request on the Warrant.

The first of two estimates was submitted by Comtronics on 11/5/2007,–six days before Town Meeting but after the emergency meeting. The total amount was $200,000. The estimate included work for both the Rhodes Drive and Knuckup Hill sites. This information was not shared at Town Meeting. Subsequently, Comtronics submitted a second proposal on 2/11/2008 for just the Rhodes Drive project in the amount of $76,395.80.

The only real communication need is a microwave transmitter for the Police Department. Currently the radio traffic is collected by the antenna and routed through phone lines. What we have works. However the system is vulnerable to extreme weather events or an accident because of the possibility of downed lines. This would interrupt police communications to and from the west end. Due diligence does not require a whole new antenna. The transmitter can be fitted on Mr. Morse’s tower.

Do the math: the current arrangement with Mr. Morse costs us, the tax payers, nothing and is arguably the best site in town for our communication needs. At most we need to spend money setting up the microwave transmitter. Siting the tower on Rhodes Drive may work but we do not have the best information available to make that decision. And it will cost–well no one knows exactly how much. Clearly it will be more than free and more than $60,000.

With talks of reducing or eliminating services because of insufficient funds, why are we spending this money when we have a viable low cost alternative?

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