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Tower tackles spotty coverage

MADISON — A state panel Wednesday approved construction of a $1.24 million communications tower in the town of Superior to improve spotty radio communications that have plagued first responders for years.

The 300-foot-tall Pattison Ranger Tower is to be built near Town Line and Polish roads on county land, subject to final negotiations between the county and the state.

The structure is welcomed by Keith Kesler, the county's director of emergency management and communications. He said firefighters and other first responders are sometimes in the shadow of radio coverage in the northwest corner of the county.

"The topography ... drops off sharply toward the St. Louis River and (signals from) towers to the east of that ridge don't reach the valley. This tower will send signals to that area," said Kesler.

Railroads running through Nemadji River valley have sparked wildfires for years, and the Department of Natural Resources and other firefighters in the field, routinely lose radio coverage from dispatch creating unsafe situations for firefighters, according to the DNR.

Coverage has been so spotty that at times Douglas County has sent its mobile command post and used tactical channels so firefighters can talk to the dispatch center, Kesler said.

Negotiations are not complete but discussion has included the DNR funding the tower's construction cost and the county providing the land, up to three acres, said Kesler. The county or other municipalities would pay the cost of the communications equipment the sheriff's department or other first responders would hang on the tower.

The tower would be self-supporting and the site will be fenced, accessed from a gravel drive and include a 240-square-foot equipment building, generator and a 1,000-gallon LP tank.

The county currently uses eight or nine radio towers to page its EMS and volunteer firefighters but at least one more is needed, Kesler said.

"This will make a huge difference, not only for the DNR but also the sheriff and fire departments. There's a temporary tower at (Pattison State Park) but the signal still doesn't get down in that hole (in the coverage)," Kesler said.

The project will be designed to be adaptable to the Wisconsin Interoperable System for Communications, a shared system that first responders statewide use to communicate during large-scale incidents.

Beside the sheriff's department, fire and EMS agencies, and the Wisconsin State Patrol would likely use the tower, according to the DNR.

Cellular phone coverage in the area is also spotty, said Kesler, and while cell towers outnumbered radio towers, until recently the state could not rent space on a cell tower, he said.

Communications have come a long way in the 40 years Kesler has been in firefighting and emergency management. The county installed its first radio repeater on a tower near Bennett in 1978, which improved communications. Since then, installation of more towers allowed radio communications to cover most of the county, except that northwestern part, he said.

Construction is scheduled to begin in June and be completed in February 2019.