PORTLAND — A $403,000 construction project is under way at the Munjoy Hill Fire Station as the busy Fourth of July festivities loom.

A new regional communication tower is being installed on the roof of the fire station because the existing 75-foot tower was deemed to be 200 percent heavier than the roof could support. The tower, officials said, became heavier over time as more equipment was added to the array.

Because the new tower will also be located on the roof, the station is undergoing $245,000 worth of construction to buttress the interior and roof of the firehouse. Workers are reinforcing the walls with concrete, adding braces and relocating utilities.

But questions have been raised about whether the new tower needed to be placed on the roof.
Fire Capt. Keith Gautreau reportedly told the Munjoy Hill News blog that engineers originally recommended the tower be placed on a concrete pad that would be built on an existing parking area behind the fire station.

Gautreau is on vacation and could not be reached.

City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city and its consultant, Communications Design Consulting Group, dismissed the ground location early in the process because it would eliminate parking and would require a taller pole.

She said the taller pole and associated sitework would have been more expensive than the $240,000 needed to buttress the roof, but she could not provide a cost estimate for the ground option despite repeated requests for that information.

Several calls to the consulting company, which was paid $10,600 for its work on the project, were not returned. Calls to the project engineer also were not returned.

Former Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne, who ushered the tower project through its early stages before his retirement in April, could not be reached for comment.

Stephen Smith, who became acting chief after the tower project was already permitted, said this week that it was his understanding that city staff with the Historic Preservation Division had required the tower to be located on the roof.

The station is not in a historic district, nor is it designated as a historic structure.

Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation program manager, said the Historic Preservation Division did a courtesy review of the project since they had no official jurisdiction over the project, and were only presented with plans that showed the rooftop option.

Andrews said her only suggestion was that the pole be placed further east on the roof, as far away from the neighboring Portland Observatory as possible to preserve the aesthetic view of the observatory.

“The clarity of the observatory against the skyline is something special,” Andrews said.
At the time, LaMontagne replied in an email that the “general consensus” was the tower should stay where it is.

“It is believed moving it the 12 to 15 feet will have implications to the entire radio system and cause additional structural stress,” he wrote.

Smith said this week that the location wouldn’t affect the tower’s effectiveness, whether it was mounted on the roof or the ground.

“There wouldn’t be any difference,” Smith said. “All I cared about was getting the old pole replaced.”

The construction work is also displacing the equipment normally located in one of the station’s bays. On a recent morning, for example, an ambulance was parked on the street instead of inside the fire station.

Smith said moving equipment has had minimal impact on the station’s ability to cover the hill, a densely populated neighborhood filled with old wooden houses.

Smith said the effect on coverage has been “negligible,” since fire crews are routinely out in the community conducting inspections.

“The two trucks up there left the building pretty regularly,” Smith said. “Every night, they’re back up there.”

The tower project is funded by $173,000 in Homeland Security grants, $100,000 from the city’s Capital Improvement Plan and $130,000 from the city’s operating budget, according to Clegg.

Smith said the work needs to be complete by the end of July to comply with grant rules.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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