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Cencom out to eliminate ‘dead zones’ in SK

When Fire District 7 personnel respond to a fire in Manchester, someone has to park on a high spot and relay information between Cencom emergency dispatchers and firefighting crews.

Why? Because Manchester — along with most of the South Kitsap coastline between there and Gig Harbor — is in a communications dead zone.

According to fire district and Cencom officials, South Kitsap is riddled with dead spots. Fire Chief Mike Brown estimated at least 25 percent of South Kitsap is beyond the reach of emergency communications, including portions of State Route 16 and a good chunk of the land south and east of it.

“That’s bad,” said Cencom director Ron McAfee, who said Cencom aims for 95 percent coverage at a minimum.

The reason communications coverage is so spotty is because the only communications relay tower south of Sinclair inlet is on Gold Mountain in Bremerton. Cencom has a repeater apparatus on top of the Kitsap County Courthouse but, as McAfee said, it’s just not the same as a having a full tower.

VHF signals, which is what Cencom uses, require a line of sight between transmitters and receivers in order to work. A hill can block or at least seriously reduce the ability of a signal to get through. Coastline areas, which are by necessity much lower than most of the surrounding land, are particularly difficult to reach.

“It is very difficult to cover the shoreline of any particular area unless you have a tower on the other side looking back,” McAfee said. “A VHF signal will only bend so much.”

To address the problem, Cencom is spending approximately $500,000 to install a 180-foot communications tower next to the fire district’s training facility at 1826 Fircrest Drive in East Port Orchard. The property, which sits on the crest of Mile Hill, is one of the highest points in South Kitsap. McAfee said the spot is an ideal site from which to expand coverage to the east.

“All the area on that side has little or no coverage,” Brown said. “This should solve a lot of that.”

In addition, Cencom has also arranged to install relay equipment on the KPLU tower, which sits at the corner of View Park Road and Banner Road near Fragaria. The equipment will cost approximately $75,000 and McAfee estimates the lease on the tower will cost between $8,000 and $10,000 year.

Apart from being much cheaper than a stand-alone tower, McAfee points out the KPLU tower is more than 500 feet tall — nearly three times as tall as the proposed Fircrest tower.

The towers and equipment are all part of the Kitsap County Emergency Plan, which was created three years ago to update and improve radio communications in Kitsap County. The plan is being paid for through a $6.5 million loan borrowed against future 911 tax collections.

The plan will also pay for all VHF equipment to be replaced with newer models. McAfee said the company that made the current equipment stopped production 12 years ago. When something breaks, Cencom must advertise for salvaged replacement parts in trade magazines.

Cencom also proposed building a second tower near Wicks Lake — located just south of Lake Flora Road — but could not afford it. Besides, McAfee pointed out, between the Gold Mountain tower (which will be refurbished), the Fircrest tower and the KPLU tower, coverage in South Kitsap will hit the hoped-for 95 percent mark.

The additions will also create redundancies in the relay system. Currently, if one tower goes down, the entire network collapses. The new towers and relays will allow the system to bypass faulty equipment and stay functional.

Brown said the system has gone down several times over the years, and each time emergency personnel had to set up relays with hand-held radios and phone in order to maintain contact with dispatch. The new system will also allow emergency workers in the south end to stay in direct contact with personnel in the north end without needing to be patched through central communications.

However, the first order of business is to get the permits for the Fircrest tower. The KPLU tower will only work with the Fircrest tower — if for some reason Cencom is unable to build on the Fircrest site, the equipment destined for the KPLU tower will have to go elsewhere.

McAfee said Cencom had to jump through quite a few hoops to get the Fircrest site, including a lengthy lease-drafting process with Fire District 7. The district’s board of commissioners finally approved the lease last month, although Cencom still has some paperwork to finish before the lease takes effect. There were concerns that the site, which has had several quasi-industrial owners, might be contaminated and the district asked Cencom to do extensive due diligence research to make sure the district would not be held liable if contaminants were found.

“We think we’re okay,” McAfee said.

If the permits go through in the expected time frame, McAfee expects to start work on the tower this spring, so as to be finished before the rains begin next fall.

“A tower like this is not an easy thing to put up and we want to do it right the first time,” McAfee said.

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