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In downtown Tampa, the case of the misbehaving cars

TAMPA — A mysterious problem that is causing car alarms to go haywire in downtown Tampa has caught the attention of federal authorities.

The Federal Communications Commission says it is investigating an unknown force that frequently sends car alarms shrieking in a concentrated area of downtown. Neither the car owners nor kind helpers on the street can quiet the racket, and some cars have to be towed away because the alarms won't stop.

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny said he had heard of this type of focused interference happening in only one other place: an area around New York City's Empire State Building. The FCC considers it a serious issue.

"We'll look into the matter," Kenny said, after a reporter called with questions. He declined to give specifics about the New York case.

In January, the New York Daily News ran a story about a five-block area near the Empire State Building where an unusually high number of vehicles either couldn't start or had jammed alarms. Many blamed the TV and FM radio antennas on top of the tower, though Empire State Building officials said that wasn't the cause.

Locally, towing companies and the staff of the Tampa Downtown Partnership deal with the problem at least a few times a week, and it dates back at least a couple of years. In many cases, drivers are stuck as they try to deactivate alarms, some of which inexplicably shut off on their own.

The solution is often simple:

"Relocating the car seems to fix the problem," said Lynda Remund, the downtown partnership's director of operations. The partnership's guides assist motorists, among other duties. "The guides usually will just push it a few feet and the alarm will stop."

The bad spots seem to be in downtown's core, from Franklin Street to Ashley Drive and from Polk to Twiggs streets, said Julio Montalvo, who supervises the downtown guides.

Montalvo and his guides believe the trouble is caused by the tall antennas atop the Colonial Bank building, also known as Park Tower, at 400 Tampa St.

Those rumors aren't true, said Mary Ayo, the building's senior property manager, though this isn't the first time she has checked out the idea.

"I just called the engineer (who inspects the tower's antennas) and said, 'Okay, re-explain this,' " she recently told a reporter.

The biggest antennas people see on top of the building belong to two local radio stations. Their radio waves broadcast outward, not downward, so they aren't likely to interfere with the street level, she said.

"They just wouldn't do that," Ayo said. "They're going to go up and out, not down. And everyone has some (on downtown high-rise buildings)."

Ayo theorized the interference might be caused by the increasing presence of Wi-Fi connections downtown. "That's ground level," she said. "Whether or not it can set off car alarms, I don't know."

(It can't, said Michael Diamond, national spokesman for Wi-Fi Alliance, which owns the trademark for Wi-Fi. Car alarms and Wi-Fi operate in different parts of the radio spectrum.)

When alarms won't stop, cars have had to be towed. Larsen's Towing Service, which covers the downtown area for AAA Auto Club members, is so accustomed to the problem, workers hardly need directions. They have also noticed a lot of activity a few blocks south of Colonial Bank.

"They're all over, but mostly around the Verizon building (at Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa Street)," said company owner Bob Larsen. "I tow cars there all the time. Seems like it's mostly Lexuses and Toyotas, but we see all kinds of cars having that problem, at least a couple a week down there."

Kimberly Blake of Brandon, who works in the Bank of America tower, hasn't had car alarm woes. She had a different problem: If she parked her Mitsubishi in the wrong place, her engine's kill switch engaged and she couldn't start the car.

Blake learned she couldn't park on streets surrounding the building or facing outward in parking decks. Once she asked some men to push her car to an intersection, where it started.

"After a while, I disengaged my kill switch," she said.

So what could be causing this?

Anything from GPS tracking systems to TV satellites to other cars' alarm systems could be responsible, said Robert Martin, who owns Alarmtek Auto Alarm, a Tampa-based online auto security business.

"It could be a combination of all those things downtown," he said. "If you're getting blanket radiation from another frequency, you could be in a field that nullifies the wavelengths used to operate your car's alarm."

The FCC includes a disclaimer in car alarm manuals warning that other radio frequencies may override the alarm's frequencies.

Still, Tampa's situation appears to be rare. Downtown St. Petersburg doesn't have these problems, according to Eric Carlson, the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership's transportation director. All of the same elements, such as Wi-Fi, TV antennas and other devices using radio frequencies, also are there, though the buildings aren't as tall.

Since no one knows for sure what's triggering the alarms, little can be done. So the guides keep pushing cars away from the trouble spots, while wreckers continue making weekly trips to help frustrated callers.

"We work around the clock down there," Larsen said. "And it doesn't seem to be happening anywhere else."

Times staff writer Elisabeth Dyer contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

In downtown Tampa, the case of the misbehaving cars 04/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 11:02am]

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