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Mt. Blue antenna hiding in plain sight as fire tower

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Although the Mt. Blue tower is basically finished, the statewide MSCommNet system will not be fully operational until 2013. (All photos by Steve Mitman)
The observation platform is a very sturdy structure built inside the fire tower base.

WELD – A striking new structure has recently appeared on the summit of Mt. Blue. On closer inspection with binoculars, or even with the naked eye on a clear day, a fire tower can be identified. According to firelookout.org, there are 143 known fire tower sites in the state. Most were constructed during the first half of the 20th century but only three are still active. However, according to Bruce Farnham, Mt. Blue State Park’s manager, “It is not a real fire tower.”

Why go to all the trouble and expense of building a fake fire tower on top of a mountain? The project is the product of a compromise between the Maine Department of Conservation (DOC), who runs Mt. Blue State Park, and the Maine Office of Information Technology (OIT). The Maine State Communications Network or ‘MSCommNet’ is the new public safety radio communications network for the state of Maine. The $56.9 million dollar project is sponsored by the Maine OIT in cooperation with state, federal, county and local agencies. According to Tom Driscoll, MSCommNet Outreach Coordinator, “The purpose of MSCommNet is to unify and modernize the public safety radio communications network for Maine State Government.”

Mt. Blue is unique among project’s 42 statewide tower sites as it is the only one located in a state park. The new radio communications fire tower on Mt. Blue replaces an outdated radio communications facility and an abandoned forest lookout tower. In order to gain approval from the DOC, project planners developed a unique design: a radio tower and radio building that looks like a forest fire tower. The planners were also required to integrate an observation platform into the structure that is open to the public. The final tower design is a close replica of a traditional Maine forest fire lookout tower.

“It is not until you are standing quite close to the tower that you notice that the cab windows are not real,” said Farnham. “Forty feet above the base, the white microwave dish antennas are hidden inside the cab and the ‘stick’ antennas are attached to the outside. There is no public access to the antenna cab other than for radio technicians who will conduct routine maintenance and emergency repairs.”

The 360 degree view from the 20-foot tall observation platform is stunning and a great improvement over the current narrow scenic view sites on the partially wooded summit. The new observation platform opened to the public last week.

The new observation tower affords some amazing views like this one of Bald Mountain in Weld to the south.

According to Driscoll, more than 100 workers and more than a dozen subcontractors were involved in the tower construction project that is scheduled for completion later this year. The statewide project is funded by: federal grants, cost sharing with the Department of Homeland Security/Customs and Border Patrol, and certificates of participation that are each payable over a period of seven years. Franklin County Emergency Management (EMA) director, Tim Hardy, has been involved in the project for more than two years.

“This project is a big enhancement to county emergency response communications,” Hardy said. “It will help fill some real gaps for law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies.”

The trail head for the 3,187 foot Mt. Blue is located off the Center Hill Road in Weld. Although the trail is only 1.6 miles in length, it is a traditional Maine fire warden’s trail which takes the shortest route to the top. The trail climbs consistently up the cone-shaped mountain and does not afford any ‘easy sections’ for breaks. It is recommended that hikers carry drinking water and be in reasonably good physical condition to make it to the summit. If you choose a clear day, you will be rewarded with amazing views from the new fire tower observation platform.

According to park manager Bruce Farnham, the tower has a concrete foundation that is anchored six feet into solid rock.
Christi Mitman of Strong makes the final ascent to the summit of Mt. Blue, the town of Phillips can be seen in the background.
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