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County exploring replacing radio tower

January 9, 2019

GERING — The radio tower that currently sits atop the Scotts Bluff County Courthouse has been there for almost 40 years — and it’s due for an upgrade, Communications Director Ray Richards told the the Scotts Bluff County Commissioners Monday evening. Richards was joined by Rick Derr of Action Communications, who helped lay out some of the issues with the aging tower before asking the board to consider putting out a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a new tower.

“The tower has served its purpose in an excellent way for that (40-year) time frame, but it is full,” Richards said. “We cannot put any more equipment on that tower — for the things that we are doing in the communications center, as well as the mandates that are coming over the horizon for us for future growth.”

Richards said much of the growth has occurred over the last 10 years, and with the passage of the public safety act in Nebraska last year, several upcoming projects will require a more robust tower with room for growth.

“We need to move, and it’s a discussion that has happened several times over the years,” Richards said. “With the changing of the guard over in Scottsbluff City Council and Mayor (Randy) Meininger’s passion for communications, we started working on it aggressively the last two or three months.”

Derr said the ideal site for the new tower would be right next to the old jail — a crucial location in order for radio waves to have an unobstructed line-of-sight path to the South Mitchell tower, and to the tower at Lake Minatare. Adding to concerns is congestion on the current tower on the courthouse roof, which currently holds 30 antennas that handle fire department paging, Gering police, the county sheriff’s office, Tri-City Roadrunner and more.

“Everything that comes out of the communications center starts at this tower,” Richards said.

Derr showed the commissioners photographs of the guy wires that secure the tower to the roof of the courthouse, some of which are merely tied off to the concrete of the parapet wall. Without something more solid to secure the guy wires to, Derr said he didn’t think the current tower could tolerate the stress of adding more antennas.

“If that tower were to come down, safety would be compromised,” he said. “We’re in an attic. The heartbeat of the county is in an attic.”

With the new tower, Derr said the radio room could be moved from the courthouse attic and put in the sheriff’s residence inside the old jail in Gering, with the tower being positioned in a grassy area adjacent to the building.

The roof of the courthouse is 90 feet tall, and the current tower is 60 feet tall because the City of Gering has an ordinance limiting the height of towers to 150 feet. However, Derr said that ideally the new tower would be 160 feet, which would require applying for a variance in order to comply with the ordinance.

“One hundred sixty feet is a sweet spot as far as the cost,” Derr said. “(The tower sections) come in 20 feet increments.”

The added height also gives the tower what Derr called, “vertical real estate,” allowing for more antennas to be added in the future.

And while the current tower is meeting the needs, Richards said that in the winter time ice can add weight to the tower, which when coupled with the wind and the weight of the tower’s current antenna load, leads to potential problems.

“(The tower) is not at a critical mass,” Richards said. “It’s something we need to address and this is the year that we want to do that and be pro-active in getting this solved to make it safer, more robust, and allowing it to handle the growth that is coming around the corner.”

While neither Ray nor Derr could provide a specific cost without first putting out an RFP, their estimates range between $250,000 to $500,000. Derr said the costs are in three parts: the cost of the tower, the cost of the antennas and the cost of the renovations needed to move the radio room to its new location. There are still a lot of details that need to be explored before moving forward, he said.

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