Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Vandals of tower impact community communications

Connie Young, from Grants Pass, Ore. was frustrated and worried when she called. It appears vandals may have targeted the second time this year a southern Oregon lookout tower.

This time, the tower attacked on Dec. 10 at almost 8 pm. was located on Tallowbox Mountain southwest of Ruch in Jackson County. In April, vandals had burned down one on Mount Sexton in Josephine County.

The tower is important in summer for checking for fires in summer from lightning strikes in this heavily forested part of the state, but the towers are also crucial to communications in these areas.

As Medford’s Mail Tribune newspaper reported Dec. 12, “The radio building houses equipment used by Applegate Fire District No. 9, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department and the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Forestry. Gear that provides some rural cell phone and broadband Internet service also is located there, officials said… Although the fire didn’t burn the lookout, it did char support beams and burn through some cross pieces ... The lookout, which was shuttered to withstand winter storms, also had smashed windows and railings on its steep steps were torn down...”

The fire in April had destroyed three radio repeater antennas.

So how serious is the impact of all this vandalism?

As Young pointed out, you don’t realize how dependent you are on these communication towers for so much of your life these days. There is loss of cell phone service, internet, and emergency 911 services. All relied on those towers.

For those who rely on the internet for personal as well as business reasons, they struggled to adapt: the Applegator newspaper that serves Applegate Valley for example, was trying to make deadlines. People were doing their Christmas shopping and trying to get orders in time to businesses so they’d have products in time for the holidays. And personal interaction with relatives, friends and fellow workers was suddenly interrupted for the hundreds of internet subscribers who rely on services that went through that tower.

Planning organizational meetings, ordering Avon, updating relatives on health, getting those annual Christmas letters emailed or received from far away, researching information needed for an assignment at work or school: all these things suddenly became more difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult.

Cell phones are used for personal, business and emergency reasons. Just think of the recent story about the Kim family from California who made national news when they were lost in this area of Oregon not far from where these towers are now being burnt.

As CNN reported in a story on Dec. 5, “The engineers were able to trace a “ping” from the Kims’ phone when it received the text messages. They located not only the cell tower in Glendale, Oregon, from which the messages were relayed, but a specific area west of the town where the phone received them.”

In the Dec. 12 Oregonian newspaper, a story describing a search for lost hikers on Mount Hood said that searchers were looking for a snow cave for one of the hikers at the 10,300 foot level of the mountain because “Two more cell phone pings Monday have given searchers a good sense of where James is located, just below the summit, according to Chris Guertin, a Hood River County sheriff's deputy who is coordinating the search.”

There is a reason phone companies set up their equipment in towers in certain locations: to best provide service for people who need to use their cell phones. Eliminating even one of the towers reduces cell phone coverage and the last week has shown this could mean the difference between life and death.

Can vandals be that naïve or ignorant to not have heard of these stories or do they just not care about the consequences of their actions?

In rural and remote areas that rely on their communications systems as an integral part of their lives — whether it’s business, personal or for emergencies — it becomes even more important that such communications towers and equipment be protected and respected.

Investigators are still looking into whether it was vandalism, although signs appear to indicate this is again the case. The bigger challenge will be to find out why the vandalism was done, by who, how to serve justice, and now how to replace what was lost.

For now, communities continue to look for ways to continue with their lives and understand why such senseless vandalism is being done and what can be done to prevent such stupid acts in the future.

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