Wireless in Vermont, Part Four

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(Host) The mobile communication provided by cell phones has been a technological wonder for fire and rescue crews. On the one hand they provide a valuable service for emergency crews and can save lives.

On the other hand, when it comes to personal safety, debate is growing over the effects of radio-frequency radiation.

VPR’s John Dillon examines these two issues in the fourth in our series, "Wireless in Vermont."

(Dillon) A simple phone call helped save the lives of ice fishermen on Lake Champlain’s Malletts Bay several weeks ago.

(Scibek) "Some gentlemen that were fishing out on the ice suddenly found themselves stranded by high winds that had broken up the ice out on the Bay. And they used a cell phone to contact us."

(Dillon) David Scibek is the First Assistant Chief of the Malletts Bay Volunteer Fire Department. He says the fire department used their own cell phone to stay in touch with the men on the ice.

It was a dicey situation. The ice was breaking up around the fishermen. The crew had to work fast. But in this corner of Chittenden County, cell service is lousy. Chief Robert Young was on the other end of the cell phone conversation.

(Young) "We lost contact several times, where we’d have to redial to call to talk to each other. And sometimes that was complicated for the simple fact that what I was trying to do was get them to remain calm¿."

(Dillon) Fire and rescue personnel around Vermont say cell phones have helped their jobs immensely. Some have called for better coverage and more towers.

The Malletts Bay Fire Department had just gotten their cell phones when the huge ice storm of 1998 hit. The phones provided an essential communication link when power was out throughout the Bay and the Lake Champlain Islands.

But if you ask Assistant Chief Scibek about the opposition to cell towers, you get a sympathetic answer. He’d like to see satellite technology that by-passes the unsightly towers:

(Scibek) "I love Vermont for the very fact of no billboards, beautiful hills¿. And everything about the state is beautiful and anything man-made marring that does bother me. But! What do you? There’s consumer demand."

(Dillon) In response to that demand, three companies are now competing to build dozens, perhaps hundreds, of new cell sites around Vermont. The construction boom would lead to improved service for consumers as well as rescue people.

But there are also concerns that the proliferation of cell towers will change the invisible environment around us. Cell antennas send and receive microwave radiation. At high levels, microwaves heat tissue, just like they warm up the soup in your kitchen.

Janet Newton, a citizen activist from Cabot, questions whether the low levels are also harmful:

(Newton) "For the first time in the history of the world, you’ve got this radiation expanding all around in everybody’s environment."

(Dillon) Newton is executive director of EMR Network. The EMR initials stand for electro-magnetic radiation.

Newton got involved in the issue in 1997 after a company proposed a tower near her home. That project was never built, but she’s gone on to become involved in the national debate over cell tower safety.

She says scientists have shown that changes occur in cells from relatively low levels of microwave radiation:

(Newton) "The question is, will those effects lead to a disease? And that’s where the research gap needs to be filled in right now, to answer that question¿. And there are a few reports out just in the past six months that shows not just an effect at the cellular level, but an effect that’s known to be adverse to health."

(Dillon) The cell industry says its phones and antennas are safe. The debate is being waged in courts and at local zoning boards across the country.

In Vermont, Tom Brazier of ATC Realty, one of three tower developers here, says his towers operate at well below federal safety standards:

(Brazier) "If I felt this was going to be causing a health hazard, I wouldn’t be doing this. I have two small children and I wouldn’t be afraid to live in reasonable proximity to one of these things. I do agree that they shouldn’t be right on top of somebody’s house, there should be a little bit of a buffer between them, you know, a couple of hundred feet."

(Dillon) Cell companies have placed antennas inside church steeples and on top of other buildings where the public congregates. The companies say this is not a threat to health.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

(Host) Tomorrow in our series, VPR’s John Van Hoesen looks at Vermont’s cell phone culture.

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