At the southern end of Hamilton County, a radio dead zone has plagued emergency workers for years. Law enforcement cannot check license plates. Ambulance corps members cannot call a hospital.
After years of looking for ways to bolster communications in the area, a tower on Cathead Mountain in Benson appears to be the answer. The problem? It is surrounded by land where state law prohibits motorized vehicle use, a real challenge for building a tower, let alone maintaining or repairing one.
To build a road to the mountaintop, the county must cross about half of a mile of forest preserve, and to do that, two successive state Legislatures and approximately 19 million New Yorkers must vote to amend the state Constitution. If that wasn’t daunting enough, one of the leading environmental groups in the Adirondacks is not convinced a constitutional amendment is needed, though state agencies say it is.
Without a specific plan on paper comparing costs, planning a road and how the site would get power, the Adirondack Council is hesitant to back a constitutional amendment, said council spokesman John Sheehan.
“We are almost every year asked to amend the Constitution, the forever wild clause, for one reason or another,” Sheehan said. “Personally, I’ve seen 30 years of this. It is important for us to have a set of principles in place for when we think it’s appropriate to amend the Constitution, and how we go about doing that.”
Others agree Hamilton County should have more specifics, though most are in support of an amendment. There is no bill on the Legislature’s docket, but Hamilton County Chairman Bill Farber is hoping state lawmakers will vote this year to get the two-to-three-year amendment process rolling.
“I have not given up hope,” Farber said.
Mike Tracy has worked in the emergency medical field for 22 years and is the assistant fire chief for the village of Speculator. Parts of Arietta, Wells, Benson and Hope are disturbingly silent, and we aren’t just talking cell service.
“You can’t hear anything down there,” Tracy said, about his emergency radio. “We can’t communicate with the fire departments. We can’t communicate with dispatch. … The further south you get, the worse it gets for us.”
If there is a call for help at Auger Falls, a popular hiking destination, it is a nightmare for first responders. The communication is so poor, Tracy said, they have to set up people every 30 to 40 feet on the trail to relay information.
Hamilton County Sheriff Karl Abrams has responded to domestic incidents where he couldn’t let dispatch know his location.
“I’ve had DWI arrests where I couldn’t even tell my office I had somebody in custody,” Abrams said. “On a safety standpoint for law enforcement, EMS or fire, it’s not good.”
Don Purdy, director of the county’s emergency services, said they’ve tried radio repeaters to boost a signal and satellite phones. During last year’s Halloween storm, Purdy said the satellite phone signal was so poor he couldn’t finish dialing a call let alone complete one.
When talking about doing anything in the Adirondacks, there are a number of environmental groups to consult. So far, Farber is heartened that all have heard his plea and agree an emergency communications solution is needed. Now he is trying to figure out how to get it done.