New digital system gives county more range

The first users of Blair County’s upgraded emergency communication system are praising the clarity of voice transmissions.

“The sound quality is amazing,” 911 Telecommunicator Leisa Kyle said Tuesday. “And there’s a much more extended range.”

“It’s very clear,” Blair County Sheriff Deputy James Brantner said. “It’s a lot better that it was before.”

By the end of the week, Blair County expects to wrap up a $7.5 million project with the introduction of equipment that will transfer emergency dispatches from analog to digital communications

That process started Sunday and Monday when police and sheriff’s deputies began using new handheld digital radios. It continued Tuesday when Blair ambulance crews did the same. As of today, county firefighters will begin joining the new system.

“So far, the feedback has been very favorable,” Blair County 911 Director Mark Taylor said. “What we’ve done is working.”

The change meets a federal mandate requiring emergency providers to use narrowband radio frequencies.

It also makes use of eight communication towers that should eliminate areas where emergency crews had difficulty communicating.

Those involved in the effort gathered Tuesday at the 911 Center where Taylor and construction coordinator Jeff MacAlarney of ComPros described the system and its advantages, including its backup capability to reroute dispatches.

“In case of failure at one of the tower sites, we can stay up and running,” MacAlarney said.

The new system also gives 911 dispatchers the option of activating the handheld radios carried by emergency responders, which could be helpful for an injured police officer or firefighter who has limited ability to communicate.

“They’ll be able to know which radio it came from,” Altoona fire Capt. Steve Shilling said.

The system can also be used, Taylor said, to pinpoint a responder’s location.

Taylor, who initiated the project in mid-2011 and worked last summer to coordinate efforts that led to the construction of six communications towers in remote locations and in some cases, the nearby placement of pre-fabricated buildings housing related equipment.

Blair County commissioners arranged a bond issue to pay for the project, with payments to be covered by current debt millage.

At their weekly meeting Tuesday, commissioners praised Taylor for his efforts on a project that he initiated during his first year on the job.

“It was quite an undertaking but certainly well worthwhile,” Commissioner Diane Meling said.

Commissioner Ted Beam Jr., a former councilman and public safety director for Altoona, said he knows how important radio communication is for emergency responders.

“Anything that improves it that much has to be a great asset for the county,” Beam said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.