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Amherst, N.Y., Seeks Federal Funds for Communications Tower

First responders — from police to firemen — in Amherst, N.Y., often have trouble communicating during emergencies when they're only 100 feet away from each other. The town wants COVID-19 dollars to change that.

(TNS) — Firefighters, police and emergency medical teams have had trouble talking to each other by radio while out on calls in the northern part of Amherst, a problem that has affected response times in the area, town officials say.

That's why the town now wants to construct a 200-foot communications tower to improve coverage in this largely rural, lightly populated section of Amherst.

And town officials plan to seek up to $2 million in COVID-19 relief aid from the state to pay for the tower. Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said the rise in emergency calls and new safety protocols stemming from the pandemic have created an "urgent need" for improved communication and justifies the request for COVID-19 block grant funding.

"I have had fire chiefs at working fires not be able to communicate with people inside a burning building," Kulpa said in an interview. "It's unacceptable."

This communication gap primarily affects northern and northeastern Amherst, a large swath of the town running north to Tonawanda Creek Road from Sweet Home Road east to Transit Road.

The lack of coverage "has contributed to severe communications weaknesses and delays," according to a memo included in the agenda for Monday's Town Board meeting.

When numerous police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians respond to the same incident, they often can't use their radio equipment to communicate with each other, town officials said, even if they're close enough to see each other.

Cellphones often don't work as a backup means of communicating with emergency dispatchers, according to the town, because companies haven't set up cellular towers in the area.

These communications failures are "sporadic," the town said, but a five-month study of the problem documented 25 instances among police, fire and EMS responders.

A recent example was a significant motor-vehicle crash near I-990 when, Amherst officials say, "Responding officers were unable to speak to the ambulance and EMS personnel despite being within 100 yards of other responders."

Amherst police declined to comment for this article.

Stephen W. Matisz Jr., senior fire dispatcher in the Amherst Central Fire Alarm Office, said there have been communication issues when, for example, firefighters enter a big-box retail store along the northern section of Transit Road.

"It's just a matter of being in a steel and concrete and brick block building. That just hampers the communication," Matisz said. "So it's a bigger issue of firefighter safety, if you're in there and you can't get out, and you get into trouble."

Donald Spoth, an assistant fire chief and past fire chief of the North Amherst Fire Company, recalled communication issues during previous calls in that area to assist a woman struck by a falling tree and to reach a drowning victim.

"In our district, we've got some spots along the canal, near the New Road area, that have actually, you know, proven to be dead spots where we've had trouble transmitting," Spoth said.

The problem affects portions of the North Amherst, Swormville and East Amherst fire districts, Kulpa said.

The gaps can result in a "critical loss" of response time, the town contends.

The situation only has gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said, when town agencies are fielding additional emergency or police calls.

The "dead zone" is a further risk now because pandemic-related safety measures at times limited the number of responders entering a structure to just one person, making it vitally important that those inside can communicate easily with their colleagues outside, the town said.

"They're dealing with more calls, and more volume, and they're operating in a black hole up there," Kulpa said.

The town has tried to address the issue over the years — including by adding radio frequencies, upgrading existing UHF and VHF radio equipment and training people — but it hasn't fixed the problem and consultants recommend installing a tower.

The town says it doesn't have enough money in its own budget to cover the full estimated $2 million cost of the 200-foot tower, which the supervisor's office said would be built at 4845 Millersport Highway, just north of Shoreline Parkway and near the Dockside Apartments.

Also, borrowing the $2 million isn't included in the town's capital improvement plan for the next several years, officials said. And the town explored applying for other sources of funding but determined the project wasn't eligible under the grant criteria.

Amherst does have $139,583 left over in its own federal pandemic aid to apply toward the tower, but it is seeking federal COVID-19 block grant money, which New York received during the pandemic, to cover the rest of the cost.

The Town Board on Monday voted to certify that there is an urgent need for the project, allowing the town to pursue the funding through the state.

Officials now will wait to find out if they are awarded the aid. Kulpa said if the money is approved, construction could take place in 2023 into 2024.

The tower also would serve the radio network used by town highway employees. Matisz said it's possible cellular companies will seek to lease space on the radio tower for their own equipment, improving wireless service as well.

"If a broadband carrier decided to co-locate on there with us, I'd be OK with that," Kulpa added. "Because we definitely have broadband issues up in that area."

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