Shenandoah County officials expect to turn on a new, $10.7 million public safety radio system in about 18 months.

Interim Director of Emergency Communications Gary Yew said Wednesday the project timeline depends on the county’s construction of a new facility to house his department and the Sheriff’s Office. Lantz Construction of Winchester must complete the facility within 18 months, according to its contract.

Meanwhile, Yew said the county and Motorola, the contractor for the radio replacement project, continue work on expanding the locations of the system repeaters.

“The major emphasis right now is securing the sites for the new repeater towers,” Yew said.

Plans call for replacing two existing towers, Yew said. The county intends to work with landowners at three potential sites to either lease or purchase property for additional towers, he added. The project calls for the county to install a repeater tower at the government center in Woodstock and to co-locate repeaters on existing, private towers, Yew said.

The county will upgrade its radio system from analog to digital. Yew, retired chief of the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue, called digital a “far superior radio system” but admitted the newer technology does not provide the same coverage as the older analog equipment.

“In order to make sure the entire county has the radio coverage that we need, additional repeater sites are necessary,” Yew said. “Digital gives us a lot of advantages in technology. It’s just somewhat of a weaker signal, so it does take more transmission towers to make it work, and even with the former analog system, we had some places where we did have weak or no communications in the county.

“This system will give us almost complete coverage,” Yew added. “There are a few weak areas say up in the national forest because of topography; the current mapping shows that the signal may be weak, but there’s no residents. It’d be highly unlikely if there was any public safety activity in those areas to begin with.”

Emergency responders could use “human repeaters” – people with portable radios – to get messages through areas with weak signals.

The county embarked several years ago on an effort to design a new headquarters for the Sheriff’s Office. As the architect, Grimm and Parker came close to creating a final design, county leaders asked the consultants to add space in the facility for the Department of Emergency Communications. The department lacked space for an expanded, replacement radio system, according to county officials.

“In the current 911 center there is absolutely no room for expansion at all,” Yew said. “Putting in a new radio system means, of course, new radios, new communications equipment right in the 911 center so to keep continuity of operations going while we’re trying to install that new radio system. We just did not have the space to make that happen. It would just be almost impossible to do.”

The department does not at this point need more emergency dispatchers, Yew said. The county would need to look at the number of calls to evaluate staffing numbers. The department is looking at the possible need for technological assistance, he said.

County officials hope for a seamless transition to the new system.

“You’ve gotta make it happen that way,” Yew said. “There can’t be any delay in service. So, what that means is there’ll be a lot of testing going on with the new system obviously before we make that transition to the new system to make sure everything is functioning the way it should be.”

Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com