'After what occurred at the airport in Fort Lauderdale and what occurred in Parkland, everyone is keenly aware that if we don’t have communication with our first responders, they’re left blind.'
(TNS) — After two mass shootings, it became obvious that the region’s emergency radio system was a failure. The obsolete system imploded both times and left police officers struggling to communicate as bullet-riddled bodies piled up. Something had to be done, and quickly.
Years later, however, resistance from the public continues to grow. Homeowners across Broward and Palm Beach counties are fighting new communications towers that planners insist are critical to ensuring the public’s safety. The latest battle comes west of Boca Raton.
More than 1,200 people have signed an online petition opposing a 400-foot communications tower that would integrate with Palm Beach County’s new public safety network and smooth communication with multiple agencies, including Broward County.
The new tower would replace a 180-foot tower built in 1987 at the southeast corner of the Boca Raton Municipal Golf Course, near Glades Road and Florida’s Turnpike. Nearby property owners worry that it will reduce their property values, endanger their health and deviate from zoning regulations.
“This tower is in my back yard practically,” one petitioner wrote. “Afraid of harmful emissions as well as home prices falling not to mention unsightly!”
Similar arguments roiled Tamarac, Hollywood and other communities where new towers were proposed. The opposition befuddles public officials.
“After what occurred at the airport in Fort Lauderdale and what occurred in Parkland, everyone is keenly aware that if we don’t have communication with our first responders, they’re left blind,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Robert Weinroth. “It is imperative for us to ensure we have a vibrant communication network for our first responders.”
The need for improvements in undeniable.
In January 2017, after a gunman terrorized Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, the crush of responding cops crashed the radio system. Nothing was done to fix it. Then came Parkland, where a gunman slaughtered 17 staff and students on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When the radio system crashed again, police were sometimes reduced to communicating through hand signals.
The wrangling over radio towers frustrates Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who leads a state commission analyzing the police response in Parkland.
“I throw my hands up,” he said last month. "I rarely find things that I can’t fix. This ain’t fixable the way it is. It’s a mess.”
Gualtieri spoke as a fight over towers raged in Hollywood, where residents mobilized against a 325-foot tower in West Lake Park, known for its mangroves and natural areas. County commissioners approved the tower despite opposition, saying they had to prioritize safety over nature.
“This is not going to ruin the park," Commissioner Michael Udine said at the time. "Your children are still going to be able to play there. The birds are still going to be able to fly there,”
Now the battle comes to Boca.
The new tower will be able to accommodate future equipment as the county’s radio system evolves, according to Palm Beach County facilities director Audrey Wolf. The current tower is not capable of being upgraded, she said.
The county’s public safety radio network is the primary source of communications to Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, and 17 other public safety providers, Wolf said.
Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach have their own systems, but the county’s radio system “brain” acts as the brain for those systems, she said. The county’s system also provides communications to 44 local, state and federal providers, including adjacent counties and municipalities within other counties.
The new tower is supposed to allow for smoother communications across both counties and multiple cities, including Coconut Creek, Coral Springs, Fort Lauderdale, Miramar, Miami-Dade County, the city of Miami and Monroe County.
Dan Cohen, part owner of Sunshine Self-Storage at 20555 Boca Rio Road, called the tower unnecessary and said officials should opt for two shorter towers, either at that location or elsewhere. He and his business partner also offered to donate land for two shorter towers.
“Our concern is for our property and how it’s going to be affected by this tower,” Cohen said. “It will have a visual impact on people who live in Boca West, Boca Grove and Woodfield [developments]. Plus the people who now live around the golf course in that whole neighborhood.”
Cohen said the group of residents and business owners protesting the tower also are concerned with waivers recommended by county staff that he said would skirt zoning laws to allow for the tower.
Deputy City Manager George Brown said during a meeting June 11 that a 200-foot tower could meet Boca Raton’s needs but that the county needs a taller tower.
Boca Raton’s city council passed an agreement that the city and county will build and manage the tower together, with Boca Raton reimbursing the county up to $3 million for construction costs. Boca Raton will own the tower.
Cohen and the group opposing the taller tower feel the city has agreed to pay for a county tower.
Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer said it doesn’t make sense for the city to build its own tower. It’s better for the communications systems to be on the same tower so upgrades can be done for both at the same time, he said.
“We want to remain with the best technology available for the safety of the community,” Singer said.
The community isn’t so sure.
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