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New fire department communications towers on hold

September 30, 2018

Plans to construct seven new communications towers outfitted with high-tech microwave dishes for The Woodlands Fire Department are on hold after officials from the construction company chosen to do the project told township officials acquiring steel for the towers might take longer than expected. Another issue that arose was a desire to inform nearby residents of the project, although that is not required.

William Pham, the township’s information technology director, gave an update on the project during the Sept. 20 meeting. Pham said the project began in 2017 as a way to provide more reliable communications connections for The Woodlands Fire Department, which could have its underground communications lines cut or even damaged in a disaster. By having aerial towers with microwave dishes, the risk of losing communications abilities during a storm or disaster are lessened.

“The original plan to build seven towers over a four year process. Now, during the 2018 budget process, the board elected to accelerate that to complete everything in 2018,” Pham said. “The communications towers are for voice and data to get to the fire stations. Today, the issue we run into, because most fire stations are in an urban area, there is not enough commercial (capabilities) to get a high speed line to them. One of the major issues we have is, the lines get cut quite frequently. The goal is to put towers up, so you’re going through the air.”

The project is currently at the beginning of phases three and four, which requires board approval for the construction of the towers — being done by a firm called AllPro Consulting Group.

AllPro Represenative Rob Lister was at the meeting and explained the details of phases three and four to the board, which he said was construction and then final installation of the working microwave technology. The seven towers range in height from 115 feet tall to 150 feet tall and will be outfitted with various communication antennas as well as microwave dishes. There is already a pole at the Central Fire Station that is capable of holding the necessary equipment, but new poles or towers would need to be installed at stations two through eight.

One of the stranger moments of the presentation was when Lister told the board members what approvals were required by the FCC to be acquired before the towers could be erected, which included a review by the Texas State Historical Preservation Officer and dealing with local Indian tribes that have certain rights over land use in The Woodlands.

“The Woodlands consists of a lot of Indian lands, we had to go and get permissions from them and in some cases pay fees to get approvals from the indian nations in order to erect the towers,” Lister said. “The Indian reservations have a governmental body with in the tribe. if you build certain things on their land, one being towers, you have to go to the tribals and get permission. There are still rights for the tribes in certain circumstances — telecommunications and erecting towers is one thing.”

Board Chairman Gordy Bunch said he was unaware of any native Indian tribal rights existing in The Woodlands.

“None of us had any idea there was tribal land here or reserved rights,” Bunch added.

Lister continued his presentation by showing maps, drawings, designs and photographs of the proposed towers and where they would be constructed. Because the towers are going to only be used for fire department or governmental communications and purposes, there is no need to get permission for the towers from the township’s Development Standards Committee or to notify local residents of the towers and seek input or feedback.

The overall price tag for the project is listed at about $1.1 million, with more than $264,000 already spent on design and other aspects of the first two phases. The township board was presented with several options for costs of both materials and construction, but did not make a decision on what options to choose during the Thursday meeting because of uncertainty over minor cost details as well as issues in obtaining the steel for the project.

“I’m concerned were not going to be able to live up to the seven week obligation we agreed to,” Lister said in reference to the steel acquisition aspect of the project.

Bunch told Lister there is no need to make any decisions on the issue now, and the township will send out affected resident notices to every home within a 300-foot range of the stations.

“The great thing is, we don’t have to make a decision tonight, this is informational,” Bunch said of the presentation. “We really need to have those community meetings with potentially impacted residents. Once we get that feedback, we can make a decision.”

The board is scheduled to revisit the issue during a meeting in October.

jeff.forward@chron.com

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