U.S. Border Patrol visits Dunkirk

Imagine having the foresight to see someone in distress or a dangerous individual trying to enter U.S, territory in seconds.

This is what the U.S. Border Patrol wants to accomplish along the Great Lakes, with their radar towers. A cutting-edge system, it allows them and other law enforcement, as well as the Coast Guard, to keep an eye on Lake Erie at all times.

Two towers have been approved along the shoreline in the towns of Evans and Ripley. Officials would like to place a third tower at the wastewater treatment plant owned by the village of Fredonia, which is in the town of Dunkirk.

At a recent special meeting held in the Dunkirk Town Hall, planning, zoning, and town board officials got together to listen to an in-depth presentation focusing on this goal.

Michael Fay, operations officer of the U.S. Border Patrol, as well as Jennifer Janik of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, answered everyone’s concerns while explaining the benefits of the towers.

“It is a challenge on the northern border to detect and deter people coming into the United States,” Fay began, as he held up a giant poster showing the details of the radar’s reach across the lake. “We can’t build a fence in the middle of the lake. The answer up here is technology.”

The radar system has been in the works for nearly a decade, and having been tested in Ontario, the U.S Border Patrol knows it works.

“The results were instant,” Fay said. “It was like turning on a light. We knew who was coming into our border.”

Chasing people around all day on the lake burns fuel fast, and if all you see are boats, it is a real challenge to know which is illegal.

“The radar shows red boxes, which lets us know who is crossing the border,” Fay explained. “We can focus all our time on actual targets.”

“We didn’t want new; we wanted something that was tried and true,” he continued. “We wanted something we knew was going to work.”

Craig Lyford, planning board member, felt perplexed the U.S. Border Patrol didn’t come to them with this information, instead of the village of Fredonia.

“This will be in our town,” he said. “This will affect our community.”

Janik explained the wastewater treatment is the ideal place to have the tower, since it is already disturbed land, fenced in, and is right by the lake. She noted they went to Fredonia, because that was the name on the property.

“The wastewater treatment plant is already developed,” she said. “The exact location is not selected yet, only the parcel. This is the first step.”

There was some concern about dangerous individuals entering the shore.

“Intelligence will tell us if we need to keep a lookout about a specific person who we don’t want to make landfall,” Fay said. ” … if we can’t get to them personally we will radio it to the Coast Guard or Sheriff’s Department.”

Radar towers also beef up search and rescue. If a boat capsizes, the radar will latch onto the person’s cell reception, telling the Coast Guard and local search and rescue where the person is.

“You will be able to get to them in seconds,” Fay said.

An event will be scheduled once this is up and running so the media, local officials, and law enforcement can see how the tower works for themselves.

“We are hoping to have this (the three towers) done by winter, so we can hit the ground running by next summer,” Fay said. “We need to fill out the application for a permit; we can’t dig a hole in the ground without permission. It is something that would crush our relationship with local officials if we rolled right in and put the tower up. We want the community to call us about suspicious people, so it is all about the relationship.”

Code Enforcement Officer Ryan Mourer added they have to allow the federal government to do things up to a certain point.

“They are coming to us and asking,” he said. “They are not demanding.”

Janik thought all three towers would be going up at the same time, and now only two are going up.

“We had to wait a long time to get where we are on those two sites (Ripley and Evans); now it might be next year, or the year after that before we can get the third one up,” she said.

Planning Board Chairman Vincent Vecchairella would support the project if his board got to be involved in it at some point.

Supervisor Richard Purol admitted the wastewater treatment plant would be the ideal place to put up the tower, since it is plowed every winter and is a secure location.