The chief of the Montauk Fire Department, Vincent Franzone, along with four Montauk fire commissioners, sounded the alarm on August 2, during the East Hampton Town Board’s work session, over delays in replacing the town’s antiquated emergency communications system. Even worse, the board was told, was the lack of a reliable patch in case the current system goes down.
“We are almost to the point of [using] smoke signals,” Chief Franzone said. While he was joking, the conversation itself was of a deadly serious nature. He explained that, in an extreme emergency, his department could be left having to communicate with radios where the signals won’t get over the many large hills in Montauk.
The town is in the midst of replacing its aging emergency communications equipment, a process that has hit several stumbling blocks, pushing the start date from the originally projected Labor Day weekend of this year to Memorial Day weekend of next year, or possibly further down the road. The project was originally bonded at $6.5 million, but changes in the plan have added another $1.7 million to the cost.
Montauk Fire Commissioner Dick Schoen told the board that the antenna with emergency communications equipment on it near the Montauk recycling center is operating at 154 percent capacity. That antenna was one of the stumbling blocks that has cost the project time and money. When Motorola, the company that has contracted with the town for the new equipment, examined the tower, its engineers found that it will have to be structurally fortified, if not totally replaced, in order to carry the new equipment. In addition, the shed for the tower, which the town had hoped to reuse for the new equipment, is going to have to be replaced.
Commissioner Michael Mirras also addressed the town board. “As we understand, the communications system, which is vital to the community,” he said, “is ready to collapse. If it breaks down, there are no spare parts and we would have a patchwork system which would severely affect public service.”
“It clearly is an obsolete system,” agreed Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc. “And some parts are not available from the manufacturer. We’ve been scavenging them from eBay and other places in order to keep the system going.” The system upgrade, he said, was “probably five years overdue.”
Commissioner Mirras said that when the plan to replace the equipment on the towers and on the ground was first put into place, the Montauk Fire Department was told it needed to buy new radios to interact with the new system. Those radios were purchased at that time, and are now sitting in a room, unused. “We need an update. Is Memorial Day a realistic date, or is it going to be delayed further?” he asked.
“We were projecting that that system would be online by this September,” Van Scoyoc responded. “That date obviously is blown. I don’t want to give another date that, for some reason, we can’t meet because some problems come up.” However, he added that the word from the town’s communications director, Ed Schnell, is that the project will be ready closer to Memorial Day next year. Van Scoyoc said that, going forward, the board would immediately put together a commission or committee involving all the various emergency responder agencies in the town, to make sure all were abreast of any new developments or delays.
When he spoke, Chief Franzone complimented Schnell’s work on the project, saying he had actually spotted some of the shortfalls in the original proposal. Chief Franzone acknowledged that the board was dealing with the mistakes, to some extent, that town boards had made in the past, but that now the onus was on it. “How many more things are we going to find before we get this going?”
Van Scoyoc replied that he was “fairly confident” that there were no more major surprises coming. He addressed the questions about the Montauk tower, and why it had not been anticipated that it would have to be fortified. “The problem, as I understand it,” he said, “is that they were relying on past engineering reports which may have been fudged by some of the operators on the tower. They may not have been accurately reflecting what the actual conditions were.” Once the current board realized there could be a shortfall, it immediately filled the gap with the $1.7 million bond.
All the commissioners and the chief returned several times to the problematic current system. Schoen said the issue with the current Montauk tower is weight. We are in a hurricane season, he reminded the board. “Wind is the issue,” he said. “I would like you to keep this point in mind: If a hurricane goes through Montauk and our tower goes down, we are without EMS, we are without fire, we are without police.”