By Jason KUROSU
A proposal to develop a dedicated communications system for emergency responders throughout Los Angeles County has not gone without opposition, but plans for the construction of cell towers are still ongoing, including a potential cell tower erected at the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station. The program known as the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, or LA RICS, is funded by a $154 million grant through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program in order to establish interoperable broadband networks for use by first responders.
At the Crescenta Valley Town Council’s Thursday night meeting, LA RICS Authority Program Manager Rick Polehonka delivered a presentation highlighting specifics on implementation and the purpose of the program, which he said provided benefits for both the community and first responders.
Polehonka said that by creating a public safety network outside of regular commercial channels, the project “improves citizen and responder safety” and “increases the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency response.”
LA RICS is currently scaled down from its initial plan for the construction of 231 monopole sites for the LTE network to 63 sites (48 fixed location, 15 portable sites). Some cities have opted out of the project.
On April 14, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved construction of LTE infrastructure at a limited number of sites and mandated that public outreach, such as Thursday night’s presentation, be completed prior to any construction.
Polehonka assured residents at the town council meeting that LA RICS was a safe and necessary tool that would aid 81 public safety agencies, 34,000 first responders, and 17,000 second responders in serving the public.
Failures in first responder communication during major emergencies such as 9/11 were the impetus behind LA RICS, an issue Polehonka said LA RICS would alleviate by not having to rely on commercial cellular service, which Polehonka said was inadequate for public safety.
“One thing that we’ve seen time and time again is that when we have emergency situations, commercial networks are not built to handle all of that massive capacity and the networks end up going down,” said Polehonka. “It’s critical that we put first responders on their own private network.”
Polehonka said that a cell tower at the sheriff’s station would be vital for ensuring sufficient coverage and was a natural location for a cell tower, as the sheriffs could provide adequate security.
Polehonka also showed how efforts were being made to obscure the tower from public view by lowering the height of the towers to 45 feet from their original 70-foot height and painted green to obscure them from view of the public.
Residents in the audience voiced their disapproval over the tower, saying it would emit harmful electromagnetic radiation, as well as affect property values.
La Crescenta resident Rola Masri said she was concerned about the effects of the emissions, particularly on children, with the close proximity of Mountain Avenue Elementary to the sheriff’s station.
Masri cited studies which said cell tower radiation could be linked to cancer, leakage of the blood brain barrier, ADD, ADHD and autism, even at lower levels of radio frequency (RF) emissions than what cellphone towers emit. “Having communication at the expense of health is horrible,” said Masri. “I think to have this technology in our area around our children, around homes, without having enough studies done, is very irresponsible.”
Liz Barris of The People’s Initiative, a nonprofit group opposed to the proliferation of cellphone towers and the ensuing emissions, echoed Masri’s concerns and noted opposition from local police and firefighters unions regarding the installation of cell towers at their facilities.
“I don’t know why the sheriffs aren’t on board. Their DNA is the same as the cops and firemen,” said Barris.
Polehonka said that radio frequency emissions from the cell tower were far below the maximum exposure limit (MPE) standard set by the FCC of 505 µW/cm2 and that emissions from LA RICS LTE installations would be 0.1% to 1.5% of that maximum exposure limit.
“We have a lot of RF (radio frequencies) that we are exposed to on a day-to-day basis. We’re exposed to that on our phones, on our cordless phones, on our WiFi. In fact, these everyday devices that we turn on and use are actually emitting more RF than what we would get from one of these towers,” said Polehonka. “The maximum exposure at the sheriff’s station is well below public exposure standards.”
Polehonka said LA RICS has been asked by some to lower MPE standards to less than 0.001 µW /cm2, a limit he said would not permit the use of cellphones, smart meters, microwave ovens, air travel, WiFi and more.
But Barris said that the numbers used by LA RICS representatives are misrepresentations of the actual emissions from cellphone towers and also rejected an LA RICS citation of FCC standards regarding radio emissions, saying that a lack of FCC medical expertise negates their statements on a lack of health risks.
“The FCC also has no public health experts at all in that agency. Not even one,” said Barris. “It’s like asking Philip Morris to tell the FDA what’s safe about cigarettes.”
Though LA RICS has not commenced construction on the tower, pending public outreach and more consultation with the board of supervisors, the project is under a funding deadline. The project must be completed by Sept. 30 or could face losing the funding entirely.