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Communications tower in western end damaged

A communications tower used by 911 to cover the western end of the county is damaged and needs replaced but could offer an opportunity to expand broadband in the area.

“It’s very vital,” MECCA 911 Director Jim Smith said Monday at an emergency work session of the Monongalia County Commission.

The tower is located at the Catherine’s Knob tower site off Daybrook Road and was built in 2005 by Premier Construction Group.

While at the tower site, Assistant Director Mike Fortney noticed a crack about 30 feet high on one of the legs. Video footage taken with a drone showed a second crack on another leg.

An assessment by Premier determined at some point during an upgrade, the anchor points were moved and the tower no longer stands with 100% of its weight at its center and is twisted, Marion Dougherty, of Premier Construction Group said.

The tower is made of hollow posts that became clogged, and the cracks were caused by water that was trapped when it froze, Fortney said.

Fixing the tower is unlikely.

“In my opinion, I don’t think the money it would take to do it and do it safely; I don’t know how we could,” Dougherty said.

That means equipment on the 480-foot tower can’t be removed and could be destroyed when the tower is removed.

Equipment includes items MECCA 911 needs, such as an antenna for EMS, but it also provides cell coverage from a major cell carrier and is a key part of the state’s microwave loop system, Smith said.

Lost equipment could add to what Dougherty estimated would be $700,000-$1M to replace the tower and its facilities at a new site.

Smith and Fortney are meeting with the West Virginia Statewide Interoperable Executive Committee on Tuesday to talk options and funding.

The cell carrier will be notified on Tuesday and hopefully be part of the solution.

It’s not immediately clear who is liable and Commission President Ed Hawkins said the point isn’t to assign blame right now.

An engineer will be hired to look at the tower and assess if it can survive the estimated 8-12 months before a new tower is ready.

If the tower does fall or need to be removed for safety, a tower at Sand Springs, upgraded about four years ago, covers the western end — though not as well as this one does, Smith said.

Additionally, some states have portable towers for emergency situations and Smith said he would look into what West Virginia offers in that regard.

Commissioner Tom Bloom said he will look into what funds are available for improving broadband in the area.

Dougherty said the tower can have equipment on it to do so, and there are grants available for rural broadband improvement.

The one silver lining of the situation is that the western end of the county might get first class broadband, Bloom said.

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