Forty times a minute it flashed, all night long.
The persistent bright light shined from Northeast Tacoma into homes across the South Sound.
It appeared, without warning, the week of May 22.
“That thing was like someone was perpetually taking flash pictures,” said Susan Brandt.
The strobe light was coming from a new radio tower on Indian Hill, just 3,000 feet from Brandt’s home on Orca Drive Northeast.
“At night it’s blinding,” she said.
The tower, and the light, belong to Pierce Transit. The agency uses it to communicate with transit drivers and their vehicles, spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet said.
The $750,000 tower is vital to the safety of passengers and employees, she said.
“The information gathered via this tower essentially forms the backbone of how Pierce Transit plans its routes and schedules, how it keeps passengers and staff safe and how it gathers critical data necessary for efficient operations,” Japhet said.
Pierce Transit has broadcast from the site since 2008. A previous, 450-foot tower was dismantled because it no longer met Federal Communications Commission standards, Japhet said.
The new lattice tower is 300 feet tall. Unlike the previous tower, it doesn’t need guy wires to hold it steady.
But what it does need, like many towers over 200 feet tall, are lights to warn off approaching aircraft. Some, but not this tower, also are painted orange and white.
For some reason after installation, the tower’s daytime blinking white strobe light, rather than its nighttime red light, began flashing all night long.
It was easily the brightest light in the night sky.
Brandt and her neighbors weren’t the only ones the mysterious light bothered. But it took the detective-like skills of Mehdi Sadri to solve the riddle.
Sadri lives near 21st Avenue Southwest in Federal Way, two miles from the tower. The light was pulsing through his house.
“On the opposite wall in my bedroom and my living room you could see it flashing every second, second and a half,” Sadri said.
He drove around Indian Hill, spoke with neighbors and finally found the access road to the tower. There, he saw a sign for InSite Wireless Group.
InSite owns the site but not the tower.
“(InSite) gave me the textbook answer,” Sadri said. “This is FCC regulated. But they said they’ll have somebody else call me.”
Finally, Pierce Transit contacted Sadri.
“I didn’t ask them to shut it off,” he said. “I just let them know it was a nuisance.”
That’s when Pierce Transit first learned of the problem.
“We learned that the light was not switching to red at night, as designed,” Japhet said. “We immediately fixed the problem and also verified with (Sadri) that it was corrected to their satisfaction.”
On May 25, the white light ceased at dusk and was replaced with a red pulsing light.
Pierce Transit has not yet taken final acceptance of the site and is working to make sure the lighting does not disturb surround residences, Japhet said.
Some people, such as Brandt and others interviewed in the surrounding areas, said they would have complained had they known who to call.
“I didn’t know who to contact,” Brandt said. “I was pitchfork–ready.”
The only clue on the tower site listing Pierce Transit as the owner is a small padlock with “Pierce County” scribbled on it. It’s one of eight locks attached to a gate blocking access to the site.
When it comes to radio broadcasting equipment, determining ownership can be complicated.
One company or agency can own the land, another the tower and still another the radio transmitters attached to it.
Sales and leases are conducted with little public interest.
Indian Hill’s location, adjacent to Dash Point State Park, is ideal for radio and cell phone towers.
“It’s a lot cheaper to build a short tower on a tall mountain than a 2,000-foot tower,” said media broker Greg Guy.
The new Pierce Transit tower is just the latest on the site.
The first tower was built there in 1969 and used by radio station KMO, according to broadcast engineer Clay Freinwald, who first developed the location for KMO.
Indian Hill’s owner, InSite, is a private, Alexandria, Virginia-based company that owns more than 1,500 towers across North America.
Japhet said final adjustments to the lighting, security and other aspects are still going on at the site.
Meanwhile, Sadri, Brandt and other neighbors seem to be satisfied with red at night.