Guilford County is constructing a new Emergency Services communication tower, but first the county must get approval from Indian tribes who have to sign off on the project.

The coming new tower at 6517 Dusty Road in Liberty is the final piece of infrastructure needed to complete a two-decade-long major upgrade of the county’s emergency communications system.

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners recently approved $40,000 for the purchase of the land in Liberty. The tower will provide better coverage in southeastern Guilford County for the 800 megahertz radio system used by Guilford-Metro 911 as well as law enforcement and other emergency workers.

Finding a good location for a tower is no easy task. No one wants a giant humming tower next to their home or business, and, even after a suitable spot is found, a host of federal regulatory hurdles must be cleared before a tower can go up – which is the reason Guilford County is seeking the approval of Indian chiefs for the tower project in Liberty.

Guilford County Emergency Services Director Jim Albright said it’s an interesting process anytime the county builds a new tower since it is subject to many more checks than a usual project. That’s largely because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other federal agencies are involved. One part of the process is contacting any Indian tribes that have ever occupied the land.

“The chief of the Indian tribe has to say that they have no ancestral basis for that property,” Albright said.

The chiefs have to acknowledge that the tower isn’t being built on sacred ground or on Indian land that has other special religious significance for a tribe.

An Indian chief has never presented a challenge to Guilford County Emergency Services, but Albright said that sometimes this hurdle can extend the process.

“Do know when they do it?” he said of chiefs signing off on this type of project. “When the spirit moves them. It can be a week or a month, or three months – but you have to put it in front of them and they take it to the elders of the tribe.”

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said there are a lot of other boxes that have to be checked as well before a tower can go up.

“You have to do an archeological study too to make sure there aren’t any archaeological sites in there,” Payne said. “It’s pretty thorough.”

When asked why there are so many added federal regulations to a tower project such as this, Payne said, “Because sometime, somewhere, someone put one up where they shouldn’t have, and so, when the local legislator heard it, he said, ‘I’m going to make sure it doesn’t happen anywhere else.’ And there you go.’”

The Liberty tower brings the number of towers in the communications system to nine. There is the central tower – sometimes called “the prime site” – which is co-located with Guilford-Metro 911 at the Justice Building on Coliseum Boulevard in Greensboro, a building that used to house Justice Drug Company. There are also towers in Summerfield, McLeansville, High Point and Burlington, a city that’s on the same radio system with Greensboro and Guilford County. There are also 800 megahertz towers at Hagan-Stone Park, Northeast Park and Triad Park. Now there will be the Liberty addition, which is needed to address spotty emergency response communication in southeastern Guilford County.

Guilford County tries to put the towers on land the county already owns; however, in this case, it had to buy land.

“Had we had a choice, this would have been land that the county already owned,” Albright said.

In addition to FCC requirements, the towers have to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements. Albright said the placement of the ninth tower has been challenging because of FAA clearance issues associated with airports in Liberty and Burlington.

Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue, who served for years as the director of Guilford County Emergency Services, said that building the towers is a highly involved process and expensive project and he added that other parts of the communications system are very costly as well. For instance, he said, radios used by emergency responders can cost between $5,000 and $9,000 each. They must be more rugged than standard handsets and must meet special standards such as being safe to use in a potentially highly flammable environment such as in a structure with a gas leak.

Motorola, which is handling the regulatory issues for Guilford County, provided a list of criteria that must be met under the National Environmental Policy Act. Considerations include if the tower construction “might affect threatened and endangered species or their habitat” – part of the Endangered Species Act – or if it “might affect properties included or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places or Indian religious and cultural sites.”

Also considered are whether it would negatively affect migratory birds, introduce high-intensity lighting in a residential area or create radio frequency emissions exposure above the FCC-established limits.

The county’s parks managers have never liked the towers but the county has put them up in parks anyway.

Thomas Marshburn, who served as parks manager several years ago, didn’t really like the monstrosity that was put up at Northeast Park. When asked several years ago his impression of the giant tower, had a two-word answer.

“It’s tall,” he said.

To be exact, the tower at Northeast park is 380 feet tall, which is higher than the 374-foot Lincoln Financial Building, the tallest building in Greensboro.

Marshburn also said at the time that it was one thing to “talk about it in a meeting,” but it was another to actually see the structure rising up from the center of the park in real life. The parks director who followed Marshburn also didn’t enjoy having the colossal humming metal structures in the county’s parks.

Albright said that communications infrastructure enhancement has been an ongoing process since 1996 and he’s glad to finally see it finishing up.

Chiefs willing, that is.

“I’ll be glad to see this one done,” he said. “Then we’re done with the 800 megahertz system.”