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Come January 2014, if something breaks down in the emergency communications system, the vendor wouldn’t be there to fix it. Fire departments, rescue squads and police in St. Mary’s County no longer would have a reliable radio system.

So planning is under way to upgrade the emergency radio system to the next generation of technology and to expand coverage of the radios carried by first responders.

“This is a big deal. It’s gotta work,” said Bob Kelly, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Safety.

The vendor of the current system, Harris Corp., provided county government with a coverage map depicting mobile coverage (radios in a vehicle) showing more than 90 percent coverage.

However, what county government didn’t ask about was the coverage rate for portable radios (those carried on the hip), Kelly said.

A consultant, RCC Consultants, was hired for $150,000 for a third-party evaluation. First responders on the ground had been complaining of coverage gaps in certain areas of the county, including the 7th District, Valley Lee and in Hollywood.

RCC produced a coverage map based on computer simulation showing 76 percent coverage for in-vehicle radios and gaps in those areas mentioned.

Coverage is good around the county’s four existing radio towers in Leonardtown, Dameron, Mechanicsville and California, but more towers are needed to fill in the gaps. Steep slopes found in the northeastern part of the county create areas of poor communications.

“We don’t have enough towers,” Kelly said. The original plan in the late 1990s was for seven towers, but that was trimmed to cut costs. The current system cost $10.8 million then and was finally completed by June 2003.

Now fire departments said they need radio coverage when they are inside homes and buildings, Kelly said.

RCC’s simulations for the current system showed 44 percent coverage from within small commercial buildings and 58 percent coverage from residences. “That’s what we want to target,” Kelly said.

RCC determined that 13 towers are needed to be able to fully cover the county and to allow radios to penetrate the 80-plus institutional buildings in St. Mary’s, like schools and the hospital. The project is estimated to cost more than $20 million.

The county commissioners told public safety officials to phase in the new towers.

Equipment on the existing towers needs to be replaced and upgraded. New Federal Communications Commission regulations state new towers have to withstand sustained winds of 120 mph. Three of the county towers are strong enough, but the Leonardtown tower has to be strengthened, Kelly said.

It’s anticipated to take 15 to 22 months to implement the new radio system so work needs to start by this fall in order to make the January 2014 deadline, Kelly said.

The state erected a new tower in Bushwood for its communications system. County government will place equipment on it for its 911 system to offer better coverage for the 7th District.

A new location in Valley Lee needs to be found. Plans were moving for a tower at Cecil Park, but the family that donated the property did not want a tower there, Kelly said.

Towers are also scheduled in undetermined locations in Hollywood, Ridge, Medley’s Neck and the Golden Beach area.

The commissioners funded an extra $2.5 million to public safety’s operating budget this year to buy the next-generation radios and they have $8.2 million in the capital budget for the towers.

Commission President Jack Russell (D) said the commissioners were going to fund whatever is needed for the project.

“If we’re faced with the possibility of no communications in ’14, we’re compelled to try to stay abreast of things,” he said. “If you don’t do it and something happens, then you’ve had it.”

jbabcock@somdnews.com