Aroostook County does not often see great impacts from hurricanes and tornadoes, but the region is at risk for widespread power outages during snow, wind or ice storms.
When those emergencies happen, Caribou Emergency Amateur Radio Service wants to ensure ham radio is a consistent back-up for first responders and residents of outlying towns.
The nonprofit group is raising money to build a nearly 200-foot emergency amateur radio tower to bridge communication gaps between Caribou and the St. John Valley.
Public safety responders in Aroostook benefit from towers scattered throughout The County, but those are operated and used by local law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics.
Amateur radio groups primarily use ham radio towers for their hobby. But those towers can become crucial back-up if public safety infrastructure becomes compromised in a major weather event.
Aroostook’s geographic isolation also can put residents at risk if cell phone service gets spotty or stops altogether, said T.H. Merritt, president of Caribou Emergency Amateur Radio Service.
“There are a lot of remote areas between Caribou and Fort Kent where there is no cell service at all, and that makes amateur radio all the more important,” Merritt said. “We want to be a back-up system that’s available to people.”
T.H. Merritt and his wife Terri Merritt are donating 1.5 acres out of 10 acres they own on Rista Road in New Sweden for the tower. The couple live in Caribou but plan to build a house on their New Sweden property.
Aroostook currently has three ham radio towers — in Madawaska, Caribou and Houlton — that hobby groups like Aroostook Amateur Radio Association and St. John Valley Amateur Radio Association use for everyday and emergency communications.
The Aroostook Emergency Management Agency also partners with a county-wide group of Amateur Radio Emergency Service and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service volunteers who help lead communications during widespread weather emergencies, said Darren Woods, Aroostook EMA director.
Having another amateur radio tower nearby could benefit all first responders if it becomes needed, Woods said.
Last year, Caribou Emergency Amateur Radio Service became Aroostook’s first municipal-based emergency amateur radio service, meaning it primarily serves Caribou. All 16 members are also part of Caribou’s Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, which is part of the Civil Defense Radio Service.
Caribou Emergency Amateur Radio Service became a nonprofit in August and has taken in $300 in donations so far. Merritt estimates that the 190-foot tower for New Sweden and related equipment will cost $35,000.
That price tag includes the tower itself, a back-up generator system using four 200-watt solar panels and battery power, a new radio repeater system for Channel X radio’s WCXU tower in Caribou — on which the Caribou radio group has an antenna — a radio controller system and at least a few radios. The group has applied for a $8,590 community safety grant from Versant Power to purchase the repeater, controller and radios.
The area of Rista Road near Gerot Hill has one of The County’s highest elevations at 1,100 feet above sea level, making it an ideal spot for the tower, Merritt said.
So far, Caribou Emergency Amateur Radio Service has not needed to deploy its members in a city- or county-wide emergency. But the New Sweden tower, if built, could make communication far easier when disaster strikes, Merritt said.
“My wife and I lived in Florida and we made it through 17 hurricanes. When Hurricane David hit [in 1979] and the police department airwaves were devastated, the governor asked for amateur radio operators,” Merritt said. “When cell service was lost, it was ham radio operators who helped everyone.”