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An area in downtown Tampa makes some car systems go haywire

Staci Backauskas’ Nissan Pathfinder’s engine warning light flashes as she drives in downtown Tampa. A mysterious force in the area is affecting car electrical systems.

KEN HELLE | Times

Staci Backauskas’ Nissan Pathfinder’s engine warning light flashes as she drives in downtown Tampa. A mysterious force in the area is affecting car electrical systems.

TAMPA — A mysterious problem that has plagued downtown Tampa for the last couple of years finally has an explanation. Sort of.

Within a concentrated area of downtown's core — mainly from Franklin Street to Ashley Drive and from Polk to Twiggs streets — people have been noticing that their car alarms either can't be activated, or can't be deactivated, sometimes disabling their engines. Downtown guides, police and tow truck drivers often must help push the cars out of the strange zone. Sometimes, the alarms set themselves off, sending shrill chirps into the air.

After the St. Petersburg Times began looking into the phenomenon in April, the Federal Communication Commission also investigated. The Times recently obtained the results.

According to the FCC, one of the radio antennas on top of the Colonial Bank building at 400 Tampa St. broadcasts oldies station WRBQ-FM 104.7. It uses a radio frequency that emits a harmonic, which is a byproduct of the main radio signal that occurs at a higher frequency. That harmonic might match the frequency that some car alarms use. The FCC's measurements concluded that the harmonic falls below the FCC's limits for frequencies, so the station isn't violating any rules.

"WRBQ is not in violation," the FCC case report said, "and the car alarms in question are required to be designed to accept/reject (the interfering frequency)." In other words, car alarms are overruled by radio stations, should the two cross paths.

The FCC closed the investigation in May, concluding that the station wasn't doing anything wrong. Charlie Ochs, senior vice president and Tampa Bay market manager for CBS Radio (which owns WRBQ), declined to comment.

However, the problems persist, and some may or may not have anything to do with WRBQ or harmonics. After the Times reported the situation in April, several readers wrote in or called to share their stories. Some offered theories as to what could be interfering with their car alarms in downtown.

Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Al Squitieri pointed out that mobile transmitters used by deputies' in-car computers have been known to set off car alarms when the deputies drive through parking lots, so perhaps Tampa police are unknowingly causing the problem. Another man said his Lexus dealer told him that Verizon Wireless uses the same radio frequency as Lexus remote systems do.

Then there were others who had completely different problems.

Staci Backauskas doesn't know what takes over her 1997 Nissan Pathfinder when she drives through downtown. Every time she enters a certain zone — between Tampa Street and Florida Avenue, from about Twiggs Street to Kennedy — her brake and battery lights flicker on and off. She senses some kind electrical current running through her vehicle, but the dealer detected nothing out of the ordinary.

"At this point, I just kind of roll my eyes and go, 'Whatever,' " Backauskas said.

At least one other reader besides Backauskas reported that his 2004 Volkswagen Toureg's electrical system goes haywire — air conditioner blasts, electronic compass flashes — as he drives through downtown. Three people wrote in and said their key fobs don't work in the parking lot of the new Kohl's and Total Wine stores in Clearwater, across the street from Countryside Mall. Others pointed out similar experiences in New Hampshire, Canada and New Jersey.

A few posed a legitimate question: Could something powerful enough to zap cars' electrical systems or block keyless remote radio frequencies also be harmful to humans?

It's very possible, said Vicki Warren, an electrical engineer who works for a Tennessee nonprofit organization that educates people and employers about building and environmental dangers. Along with dangerous chemicals and materials that could affect people's health, radio frequency signals are among one of the dangers Warren targets when she visits homes or teaches seminars through her group, Wings of Eagles Healthy Living.

The group has taught seminars in Clearwater, where it measured the atmosphere's radio frequency energy and was alarmed by the findings, which may or may not have been caused by the WRBQ antenna.

"There's an extremely strong signal in the Tampa Bay area," Warren said. "We thought it was from a radar. We believe it could cause an extreme biological risk."

Tom Weller, an electrical engineering professor at University of South Florida, didn't disagree, knowing of studies from respected research groups, some of which find links to specific diseases such as Alzheimer's. He would like to see more conclusive studies on whether or not radio signals harm people, though.

"It's not way out there," Weller said. "But it's still a controversial issue. For every study that comes out, there's another that says the results were flawed in that one."

Weller was intrigued by the car alarm phenomenon in downtown Tampa and was curious to know more. His students will choose their semester research projects over the next couple weeks, and he plans to suggest the subject as a possible project for someone to tackle.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

An area in downtown Tampa makes some car systems go haywire 09/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 1:57pm]
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