Construction of Shenandoah County’s new public safety radio system continues to progress, with a preliminary test to confirm the system’s functionality projected to take place in late winter before the final “big test” in late spring, according to Gary Yew, the county’s retired fire chief who is working on the $11 million project.
Yew provided an update on the project to the county’s Board of Supervisors during Tuesday’s meeting, during which he showed photographs of nearly completed towers and their surrounding compounds at the Fort Valley, Cottontown, Deerhead, Zepp and Sheriff’s Office sites and listed the milestones still to be checked off before the new radio system is fully operational.
Those future milestones include completion of tower sites at Rude’s Hill, in the southern end of the county, and Lost River. Yew noted that tower erection at Rude’s Hill has been delayed and could be another six to eight weeks out, as the county, in response to concerns from “interested parties” about a tower being built at the location, had to float a balloon to 200 feet (the height of the proposed tower) and take photographs to determine how obtrusive such a structure would be.
At the Lost River site, the only site on which the county will be co-locating its equipment on an existing tower owned by TC Energy, Yew said, the county is still awaiting the green light from the U.S. Forest Service, which is leasing the land.
Other items remaining on the to-do list include the installation of new mobile radios in local law enforcement and fire/EMS vehicles, as well as in some cooperating state and federal units (totaling about 500 vehicles, Yew noted); complete fleet mapping to determine how radio channels will be aligned in the mobile and portable units (a process Yew said is nearly complete thanks to the efforts of Mellanie Shipe, the county’s director of emergency communications, and the cooperation of fire and rescue and law enforcement agencies); and the transition from the old Emergency Communications Center to the new one still being completed at the new Sheriff’s Office.
Once those steps are completed the system will be ready for testing.
“We were hoping to test while leaves were still on the trees but obviously that’s not gonna happen,” said Yew, who added that the county is anticipating being ready to “turn the switch on” the new radio system in late winter. A final test will take place in late spring after trees are back in bloom.
Yew noted during his presentation that most tower sites encompassing the new system have been completed, though the towers are still awaiting the installation of microwave dishes.
Each site – except at the Sheriff’s Office, where the electronic equipment will be housed inside the new ECC – includes a compound that features a generator, supplied by a liquefied petroleum tank, that powers the communications equipment inside a fortified shelter. Those shelters, Yew said, are designed to “shed a stray bullet.”
“They’re pretty much bomb-proof, and they have to be,” he said. “Everything that counts, everything that keeps the communication system going is gonna be inside these shelters.”
Yew added that Shentel is running fiber-optic cables to each site.
“That was not something that we needed to facilitate communications. This is primarily to benefit the school division and enhance radio communications to the bus fleet,” Yew said. “It also makes a great backup for us should we have the rare failure of the microwave, we can revert right to the fiber, so this is all gonna work out very, very well. And Shentel is doing this at no cost to the county, and at many of these sites it’s quite a challenge to get fiber to.”
A photograph of the Fort Valley site shows a red and white tower, which Yew noted was a mistake on the part of Motorola, which was contracted for the project. Yew said the company will re-paint the tower gray to more closely resemble the galvanized appearance of the other towers.
The tower at the Cottontown site, Yew said, should address past issues with getting reliable radio signals into the Cedar Creek valley and Rt. 55 west corridor.
At the Zepp site, where a new tower was installed next to the one currently in use, Yew said the old tower would remain in place once the new radio system is up and running and that the county is leaving open the possibility of renting or leasing antennas on the structure.
Yew noted that the old fire tower that houses the antennas at the Deerhead site will remain and the county is exploring what it would cost to refurbish the structure, which he said hasn’t been staffed as a fire lookout since the 1960s.
Yew complimented the response that crews received from county citizens during work on the project, particularly those in Fort Valley who saw the area’s trash compactor site shut down for safety reasons as the radio tower was constructed nearby, as well as the county landfill staff for facilitating the compactor's closure.
District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris commended Yew’s amiability and willingness to adjust certain aspects to lessen the burden on affected residents, which included the improvements of some private roads that construction crews used to access the sites.
“We’ve taken steps where we could and where it was reasonable to keep our neighbors happy,” Yew said, “and I think that’s very, very important.”
Yew thanked the Fort Valley Fire Department for allowing dumpsters to be placed on its property while the local compactor site was shut down, the Conicville Volunteer Fire Department for allowing the county to store construction equipment there and Woodstock for allowing the county to securely store materials at its public works facility.