Some governments confronting a federal mandate requiring emergency communicators to use the narrowband frequency by January 2013 are making plans to do more work than mandated, and Blair County is among them.
Commissioners are looking into options for financing a $7 million to $8 million project, with no financial aid from the federal or state government in sight.
In addition to reprogramming radios to meet a Federal Communications Commission mandate, the Blair County project calls for building three replacement communications towers and one new one, each on its own concrete pad strong enough to support 6-foot-wide microwave dish receivers and numerous antennas.
"That's where the multimillion expense comes in," Blair County 911 Director Mark Taylor said.
ComPros Inc. of Altoona has prepared two maps, one showing current communication coverage areas and the other showing large areas where coverage will lag after the switch to narrowband.
FCC experts say that the narrowband compliance will mean some loss of signal strength. The proposed tower work, Taylor said, will address that and strengthen emergency communication in the Blue Knob and Bald Eagle areas.
New and/or upgraded towers will also put Blair County in a position to address future technological changes, said Jeff MacAlarney of ComPros, who has been working with several counties to address the mandate.
There are five main towers - on Brush, Dunnings and Wopsonnonock mountains and in the Tyrone and Williamsburg areas - that were put up between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, Taylor said.
The tower on Dunnings Mountain has a one-foot spread at the base.
The one on Brush Mountain has a four-foot spread.
New towers, which must meet building codes for public safety structures, typically have a 20- to 25-foot base, McAlarney said, along with ability to support multiple dish receivers and antennas while withstanding high winds and precipitation.
Under the proposed project, replacement towers would be built on Brush and Dunnings mountains and in the Tyrone area. Upgrades may be sufficient for the other two. The project proposes a new tower in the Blue Knob area, and the possibly of sharing tower space in the Port Matilda area.
Alongside two of the five towers, former milk truck bodies house communications equipment linking the tower to the 911 Center.
"I understand (the milk truck bodies) were put there years ago to get the system up and running, but they've never been replaced," Taylor said.
Under the new building code standards, Blair County will have to buy a pre-fabricated building for each tower. These buildings weigh 30,000 pounds and require a crane to be set in place. They feature a double air conditioning system (in case one fails), a power supply and a back-up generator and the ability to withstand a hunter's gunshot.
Like the tower, each building has to be put on its own concrete pad and bolted down.
The contents of those buildings have to be preserved, because that's what allows emergency crews "to talk" to the 911 Center, Taylor said.
Other counties' progress
Bedford County Emergency Management Agency and 911 Director Dave Cubbison said Wednesday that by the end of this year, his county will be in compliance with the mandate - a year ahead of the deadline.
"We're in the final stages of a $4.7 million project," he said.
Bedford County's efforts also went beyond meeting the federal mandate, with construction of communications towers in New Enterprise and Schellsburg and additional improvements.
The above-ground task of putting up the tower "didn't look like a complicated situation," Cubbison said. "But the whole effort is expensive."
"This system is a system that's going to last Bedford County 15 to 20 years plus," he said. "With good maintenance, it should be be a solid working system for the county until technology comes out with a new system that we're not even thinking about right now."
In Centre County, 911 Director Daniel Tancibox said that its system is already narrowband-capable and meeting the federal mandate will not be difficult. But he said he would like to build a couple more towers and upgrade the system to improve communication in areas of the county where difficulties are common.
"We did an assessment of our radio system three years ago, and it identified a $20 million cost," Tancibox said. "Then the economy tanked ... so we haven't moved forward ... but what we have currently will meet that FCC mandate."
In eastern Pennsylvania, Berks County has started tackling a $42 million overhaul of its emergency communications system, partly to meet the federal narrowbanding mandate and partly to improve signal coverage in 73 municipalities.
When Berks County is finished, the 70 fire departments, 40 police departments and 20 emergency medical service providers expect to have fewer dead spots, less radio congestion and the widespread ability to communicate with each other.
While Blair County commissioners look into options for affording the upgrade, Taylor has begun talking with fire departments and police departments.
Some of the fire departments have already bought radios capable of being reprogrammed. While the departments covered that cost with their own money or with grant money, Taylor said the reprogramming expense falls to the county.
Commissioner Terry Tomassetti refers to the project as a public safety issue that needs to be addressed. Taylor also calls it a public safety issue.
"If someone dials 911, they're expecting to get some help," Taylor said. "And if all of these improvements take place, then we're looking at much better coverage."
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.