McKEE - In the woods of Dunnings Mountain, south of East Freedom, a single-lane gravel access road leads to the highest ground where several communication towers stand.
Near a clearing with a panoramic view of Interstate 99 and surrounding acreage, a newly constructed 180-foot silver tower stretches toward the sky, overshadowing a nearby tower about half its size.
"This is a site where you can see both the old and the new," Blair County 911 Center Director Mark Taylor said.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Old and new towers and buildings stand at the Blair County 911 Center tower site on Dunnings Mountain near East Freedom. New EMS communication equipment is not in operation yet, but will expand coverage to cover 99 percent of Blair County when activated.
With favorable weather for construction, significant progress was made this summer on a $7.38 million effort to update and improve the county's 911 communications system, Taylor said.
Besides Dunnings Mountain, towers were built at five additional locations: Altoona, Blue Knob, Brush Mountain, Wopsononock Mountain and near Tyrone.
In addition, pre-fabricated buildings containing communications-directing equipment were transported to four of those tower sites, where cranes were used to set the 30,000-pound structures atop concrete slabs.
"All that equipment provides the connections between the 911 Center dispatchers and the emergency responders," said Jeff MacAlarney of ComPros Inc., Altoona, general contractor and construction coordinator.
While work on the project is expected to continue through the end of the year, Taylor said he is pleased with what has been accomplished since March when site preparation work started.
"We have not had any major roadblocks," he said.
A little more than a year ago, Taylor made a presentation during a weekly commissioners meeting to explain how a portion of the proposed project would put the county in compliance with a forthcoming change in federal regulations. As of Jan. 1, public safety radio users are expected to abandon most frequencies they've been using and move to other frequencies taking less space on the radio communication spectrum.
The process has been referred to as the narrow-banding mandate.
In addition to addressing that, Taylor proposed and commissioners agreed to take on additional work that would replace aging towers, obsolete equipment and two former milk truck boxes used to house equipment at the tower sites. He said the new system would make communication possible in areas where it is often lost.
"It's just like with your cellphone when you have trouble getting a signal," Taylor said. "That's what we have now in some locations. But with the new system, we'll have 99 percent coverage, which is phenomenal."
When commissioners last year arranged a bond issue to pay for the upgrade, Commissioners Chairman Terry Tomassetti said the improvement in public safety justified the expense, which could be covered over time with revenue generated by current debt millage. Commissioner Diane Meling and then-Commissioner Donna Gority agreed and voted in favor.
When the project is finished, MacAlarney said the county will have an up-to-date system capable of accommodating future changes in the communications industry.
"We're on target to be done by the end of the year," he said. "But we have a month and a half of testing to do before then. Like anything new, you have to let it run, and if you're going to have an issue, it's easier to address without users on it."