CRANFORD, N.J. — Union County College officials at a Dec. 9 Zoning Board meeting said the school needs to erect a 140-foot cell tower on the western side of the campus to fill “major gaps” in mobile phone coverage, stating that safety at the college is at stake.
According to UCC public safety director Joseph Heinz, and attorneys Greg Meese and Robert F. Simon, the tower installation is necessary to allow the college to communicate in the case of an emergency. But while Heinz claimed there is insufficient cell service on the Cranford campus due to “major gaps,” to his knowledge no one has had an issue calling 9-1-1 on campus. More than a year ago Heinz’s predecessor stated that insufficient cell phone coverage was a safety concern at UCC.
The tower would be erected in a clearing within in a wooded area behind the Sperry Observatory, within 1,000 feet of 75 homes, some as close as 236 feet away on Princeton Road. The tower would be within a half mile of Brookside Place Elementary School in Cranford, according to previous testimony.
The proposed tower has drawn a coordinated campaign — including a website and lawn signs — by area residents opposed to its construction. The hearing has been delayed since July, when it was originally scheduled, as a group opposed to the tower had asked for a postponement, saying it was not prepared for the meeting.
The tower would service Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T customers, and would also be available for emergency services and other antennas.
“Each of the wireless carriers currently have inadequate cell phone coverage in and around the college campus and that part of Cranford into Westfield,” Meese said in a written statement provided to LocalSource on Dec. 16. “To address some of the deficiencies, Verizon installed an indoor distributed antenna system within the college buildings, but that system is only for Verizon and it goes down if the power is out.”
He added that a radio frequency engineer would testify about the carriers’ coverage gap at the Dec. 16 meeting.
“The college had retained RCC Consultants, Inc. in 2012 to conduct an assessment of the wireless communications at the college’s campuses,” the statement continued. “There was an application in 2008 for a facility at the Cranford Swim Club that was denied and the wireless carriers have been looking for a solution ever since.”
While text messages do not reach everyone on campus, Heinz said UCC has WiFi in its buildings and a public announcement system, which may both be utilized for emergency announcements.
“We do have a way to communicate effectively with the college community, and the college has invested significant resources in a system that will allow us to send emergency alerts to thousands, if not tens of thousands of people,” Heinz said at the Dec. 9 meeting.
But he said there are gaps in service, especially in the parking areas, though he did not specify which areas. When asked if he had consulted with the chiefs of the local Fire and Police departments about this, Heinz responded that he had not, and didn’t consider it necessary because he had personal knowledge of the issue. And, when questioned by board members, he said he was unaware whether UCC had rebuffed a previous proposal to build a cell tower on campus, saying he “was not part of those conversations.”
When asked if he knew if UCC had initially rejected the plans for this particular project, Heinz said he did not know.
Zoning Board member Justin Quinn said UCC had initially rejected the application for a cell tower, which left him questioning why it was being revisited.
“What happened in 2017 that all of a sudden required a cell tower being built on the campus?” Quinn asked at the meeting.
Heinz repeated that he had not been part of those conversations, but asserted that the current problem on campus could be resolved with the new tower.
Heinz alluded to a third-party assessment of the cell phone coverage on the UCC campus, but was unsure of the results and cited anecdotes in which individuals have been unable to send and receive text messages from the safety office.
Meese stated that the assessment shows radio frequency signal strength for which a cell signal is not adequate, but other information was less clear.
“I didn’t see any sampling or data in the radio frequency report. I just saw graphs and coverage issues,” Quinn said. “I didn’t see any data about testing done specifically with regard to dropped calls or text alerts that could not go through.”
Quinn took issue with Heinz’s testimony, saying that Heinz, “said originally in his testimony that he can send emergency texts, but in all likelihood, he’s not going to get it. I want to understand if a test like that was done and, if so, what were the results?”
According to Heinz, several individuals with whom he works do not receive text messages on the Cranford campus.
“I’m not a technical expert,” Heinz said. “If you want a real technical answer, you’re asking the wrong person. We’ve had these tests and certain people in my office did not receive the message.”
Meese confirmed that texts do not always go through, saying, “It’s common knowledge on the campus that these texts don’t get through to the whole campus.”
Zoning Board Chairman Ronald Marotta said that when UCC lost power three times in the past year, the cell phone booster system was inoperable.
Heinz replied that the backup generator powers lighting and the alarm system, but the Distributed Antenna System — a network of antennas that provides wireless service within a specific area — is not powered by the backup generator.
In addition to power outages, there are a variety of emergencies that could occur on campus, Heinz said and referred to a 2018 incident in which a student was charged with bringing fake guns to the campus.
According to Meese, having a new cell tower for emergency alerts would calm nerves, since there is a national climate of fear regarding school shootings, and would allow the school to communicate alerts in case of a natural disaster.
During the meeting’s public comment period, some residents expressed concerns about safety at the proposed cell tower site, including potential fire hazards, but Heinz said he was unconcerned.
Resident Marietta Horne questioned perceived discrepancies between Heinz’s testimony at the Dec. 9 meeting and his previous statements before the Union County Freeholders.
“Mr. Heinz, back in December 2018, you appeared at the Union County Freeholders,” Horne said. “I was at that meeting. I recall you saying that one of the reasons we needed a cell tower … was that you couldn’t personally send a text from your office. Do you remember that? Since then, you testified that you’re able to do that. What changed between 2018 and now? How is that going to help you in your mission to reach that other 8 percent of the campus you’re trying to get to that doesn’t have a Verizon phone?”
Meese said that such questions would be best directed to someone else.