SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Coast Guard officials may launch a statewide outreach effort after the installation of a new foghorn trigger system at Goat Island Light off Cape Porpoise caused a tempest of complaints.
Goat Island Light is one of seven Maine lighthouses at which a radio-controlled foghorn system has been installed, and the Coast Guard plans to ultimately use the technology at 17 other lighthouse locations in the state where foghorns sound.
But after a barrage of complaints from the Kennebunkport area about the system, Matthew Stuck, head of waterways management for the Coast Guard’s northeastern district, said the service may slow the rollout of the foghorn triggers to allow for more public education.
“We may rethink the whole process and roll them out together after a period of transition and outreach,” he said during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday afternoon at the Coast Guard facility in South Portland.
The new Marine Radio Activated Sound Signal system allows mariners to turn the foghorn on by keying the microphone of their VHF radio, set to marine band 83 alpha, five times in a 10-second span. It replaces the VM-100 system, which was developed and rolled out between the 1960s and 1990s but is no longer supported by its original manufacturer.
The VM-100 detects precipitation levels and automatically sounds the foghorn when it senses moisture consistent with fog or other weather that might limit coastal visibility.
“If we had the capacity to support the VM-100s in perpetuity, we would do that,” Stuck said.
But the decades-old system is starting to break down with greater regularity, he said, and as the manufacturer is no longer producing the units or parts to fix them, the Coast Guard must begin to make the transition away from it. Stuck said the Goat Island Light VM-100 needed to be fixed six times since 2008, with three of those instances involving complete replacements of the unit.
“The senior chief and his team have been nursing it along for years now,” he said.
The change to the new radio-controlled system two weeks ago off Cape Porpoise, however, took lighthouse and Kennebunkport officials by surprise.
The Coast Guard faced complaints that the new system would be unusable by mariners who don’t have VHF radios, placing those seafarers in greater danger, or that the foghorn could be set off when it’s not necessary, potentially surprising and damaging the hearing of tourists at the lighthouse.
On Tuesday, South Portland Coast Guard officials met with Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith, Allen Daggett of the town’s Board of Selectmen and lighthouse keeper Scott Dombrowski, as well as representatives of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, which leases the lighthouse, and the Cape Porpoise Pier Advisory Committee.
Representatives from the offices of 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King were also in attendance at the Tuesday meeting, Chief Warrant Officer Robert Albert of the Coast Guard said on Tuesday.
As a result of the talk, Coast Guard Lt. Scott McCann said, the service will put the old VM-100 system back in place at Goat Island Light as soon as the parts are available. He said the Coast Guard will leave the VM-100 in place there for a year before reinstalling the newer system, and will engage in a community outreach and education effort there in the meantime.
Stuck said the Coast Guard may launch similar efforts elsewhere around the state, but he reiterated that the change to the radio-controlled system is coming whether the change is popular or not.
“The Coast Guard doesn’t have an alternative,” he said.
Albert said tourists visiting lighthouses with foghorns should consider bringing ear protection, while mariners at sea are safest if they have access to a VHF radio.
Earlier this year, the new triggering system helped resolve an impasse between the Coast Guard and an independent film director who wanted to shoot scenes near Moose Peak Light in Jonesport. The new system allows the filmmaker to do her work with minimal chance that a foghorn sounding would force her to reshoot scenes.
In addition to Moose Peak Light, the radio-activated system already has been installed at Whaleback Light between Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Cuckolds Lighthouse in Boothbay Harbor, Wood Island Lighthouse in Biddeford, Pond Island Light in Phippsburg, and Nubble Light in York.
Stuck said the Rockland Harbor breakwater lighthouse, Dog Island Lighthouse, Ram Island Ledge Light off Boothbay Harbor and Owls Head Light are the next locations on the list to receive the new system. But Stuck said there is no firm timetable for when those transitions will take place.