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Allegheny County to act on 911 tower complaints

| Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, 2:11 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Communications towers rise above St. Clement Cemetery on a hill on Bakerstown Road in Tarentum on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. Local emergency responders complain the tower used by Allegheny County 911 (left) doesn't provide enough coverage in rural areas.

In six months, and nearly $200,000 later, Allegheny County officials are hoping when they ask, “Can you hear me now?” the answer from the Alle-Kiski Valley will be, “Loud and clear.”

After fielding complaints for years about spotty and unreliable service, the county this year will be making improvements to the radio tower in Tarentum that carries communications between the county's 911 emergency dispatch center in Pittsburgh and police officers, firefighters and paramedics in the Valley.

“This has been a priority for all of us,” Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson Jr. said at a meeting Wednesday night of the Allegheny Valley North Council of Governments in Harmar.

“I feel your pain,” he told the room full of local police, firefighters, paramedics and elected officials. “The light is at the end of the tunnel.”

The county is spending $189,000 on the radio upgrades, Henderson said.

Among the improvements will be the addition of a “seamless” backup system, replacing copper lines with fiber optics, a dedicated channel for incidents separate from the general dispatch channel, and better coverage to fill in dead spots.

Fawn No. 2 fire Chief Al Ewing, who has long complained about communications problems and the county's response to them, said he was impressed by what he heard.

“Finally, they're getting their act together, and they're making an effort to take care of the problems around here,” Ewing said.

But, that's “if they follow through with what the say,” he said. “I would think they would or they wouldn't have said it.”

The county's plans include installing a 90-foot pole for a satellite receiver in Fawn, something Ewing said he has suggested.

Purchase orders for the new equipment have already been issued, and the six-month timetable is conservative and includes time for testing, said John Rowntree, radio system coordinator with the county.

Rowntree said he has spent a lot of time at the tower site, an old AM radio tower that he said is prone to lightning strikes and vandalism. Despite spending thousands of dollars on it already, it's down too often and for too long.

“It's been quite the ordeal. I do sympathize with you,” he said. “The funding is now in place, and we are able to move ahead.”

Henderson said the county will provide monthly updates on the project's status, and more frequently as it draws to a close.

“You'll be hearing a lot from us during these next six months,” Henderson said.

Henderson said he feels confident the improvements will address the major issues that have been raised.

Local departments will not have to buy new equipment, but they were advised to check their radios to make sure they are programmed and set up properly.

They were asked to do tests of their own and report any problems to the county so they can be addressed.

Often, the problem is on the local end and because of issues with programming, settings, old batteries and antennas, according to Rowntree.

“We'll come out. We'll spend time with you. We don't want there to be a problem,” Rowntree said. “We're in this with you.”

Said Henderson, “We need to be partners as we proceed.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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