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A new radio tower is under construction in Valley Lee as part of a $34 million project to improve emergency communications in St. Mary’s County.

The tower, at the Valley Lee trash and recycling convenience center, will be 320 feet tall, said Bob Kelly, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Emergency Services and Technology. It will be “filling in a big hole we have in Valley Lee” and other areas, he said, toward Medley’s Neck Road near Leonardtown to St. George Island and down to St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

The hand-held radios used by emergency workers, and mobile radio in vehicles, don’t work well in certain areas of St. Mary’s County, particularly around the waterfront. The current 800 Megahertz system provides 90 percent coverage countywide for mobile radios and less than 80 percent for portable radios, those carried by a first responder.

The new system the county government is buying from the Harris company is supposed to bring 95 percent coverage. The state of Maryland is also upgrading its communications system and through that work brought on new radio towers in Bushwood and Dameron, which the county’s system uses, too.

The Valley Lee tower “is the only tower that the county’s building in this phase” of the upgrade, Kelly said.

Including a new 800-foot road cut from the Valley Lee convenience center into the woods, the cost is around $800,000, said Steve Cooper, deputy director.

The tower is designed to withstand hurricane-force winds and if it were to collapse, it is supposed to fall in on itself. Even if it fell over sideways, it would still be on county property, Kelly said.

The tower’s foundation was laid last week and equipment shelter placed on site, and the erection of the tower is beginning. The tower should be functioning by June. Though it’s in the woods, it will probably be visible from Piney Point Road, Kelly said.

The new communications system is scheduled for three phases. As part of the first phase, some 1,900 new emergency frequency radios were purchased for about $8 million and most of them have been installed at the county’s rescue squads, fire departments, sheriff’s office and other county government departments. Complete installation should be complete in a few weeks, Kelly said.

The second phase of work will add four more radio towers in fiscal 2015 at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home, near the Country Lakes neighborhood, in Oakville and in Ridge. The four existing radio towers are in Mechanicsville, Leonardtown, California and Dameron.

Last week, the county commissioners granted an easement for the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative to bring electricity to the site in Valley Lee. Commissioner Dan Morris (R) thanked Kelly for moving the tower project along and said “it may save a life” of a first responder by filling in communication gaps.

jbabcock@somdnews.com