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INDIANA COUNTY: Officials hope to use radio towers to bolster cell service

by CHAUNCEY ROSS on August 15, 2013 11:00 AM

With millions of dollars being invested in a new countywide public safety communication system, Indiana County officials are unveiling plans to use the network of radio towers for more than just police, fire and ambulance personnel.

The county board of commissioners on Wednesday approved an agreement between engineering firm L.R. Kimball and the Indiana County Emergency Management Agency to prepare the new emergency radio towers to accommodate cellular telephone service equipment.

For several years, county officials have been planning and developing upgrades to the radio network, aimed at reaching areas that have been “dark” to emergency radio signals because of the topography. The same hilly terrain has kept commercial cellphone service from effectively blanketing the county, officials said, and the action Wednesday will help to solve both problems at the same time.

From the outset of the planning, Chairman Rodney Ruddock said, this is what officials had in mind.

“We wanted to make sure the tower sites would be constructed in such as way that they would be able to provide additional harnessing not only of the microwave systems but any other commercial vendors that would want to come into Indiana County and extend their capabilities … specifically, we were looking at cellular service pro-viders,” Ruddock said.

“Those of you who travel Indiana County know there are many, many dead spots in cellular signals,” Ruddock said. “Rural sectors of Indiana County have many dark spots … and we need to find a way to close those dark spots. We are depending on these providers to do that.

“And we are saying to them, ‘If we have the tower sites, we can reduce your cost and still provide a signal.’”

Officials said cellphone service is just as important as public safety radio in protecting lives and property.

“We had a gentleman drown up there (in Hemlock Lake) and we had no cell service. I had to travel 2οΎ½ miles to a landline to try to get any help,” said Ron Smith, a member of the Banks Township board of supervisors. “I’m not saying that if we had cell service we could have saved the man, but we could have rescued him quicker.”

Two years earlier, Smith said, flooding washed out a couple of roads but he couldn’t get fast response because his cellphone didn’t work there.

“I had to run six miles back to my place to use the phone to call 911 and PennDOT to get the roads blocked. It’s ridiculous,” Smith said. “And out at our building, there’s no service whatsoever.”

The Banks Township issues are examples of problems in areas distant from Indiana, but Ruddock said the Indiana area has trouble, too.

“All you have to do is drive five miles from Indiana and White Township and you don’t have signal,” he said. “If you were in Blue Spruce Park ... and you had some sort of medical difficulty, you may not be serviced because you don’t have the ability to make a call.

“It’s absolutely critical to the quality of life for the people who enjoy Indiana County. We have a long way to go. But if we can get one tower ... to extend the signal and we save one life, that’s all that matters.”

Under the agreement, Kimball will be paid $12,097 to develop specifications “to guarantee that outside agencies leasing space on a county tower will not be interfering with public safety use at any site,” said John Luko, the county information services director.

Kimball representative Steve Watt said that after developing technical specifications, his company would work out leases with the cell service providers, with rental fees determined by the elevation at which the cell equipment is placed.

Already, Luko said, Verizon is prepared to lease space and install cellular equipment on the tower serving Banks Township. He estimated the rentals would range from $2,000 to $3,000 a month; Ruddock said the rents would be divided between the county (60 percent) and the township where the tower stands (40 percent).

In other business, the commissioners:

• Awarded a contract to A. Merante Contracting, of Pittsburgh, for grading and utility relocation at the Joseph Land Development industrial park along Route 119 at Luciusboro Road in Center Township at a cost of $677,777.75 to be funded by a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant.

• Approved an RACP grant contract with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for $1 million of reimbursements related to development of the Kovalchick Convention & Athletic Complex. The reimbursement applies to about $2.01 million of money secured several years ago from Indiana County, Indiana Borough, White Township and the Indiana County Development Corporation for construction of the Hawk’s Landing parking lot associated with the KCAC.

The board then approved a cooperation agreement with Indiana University of Pennsylvania to establish compliance responsibilities for the RACP grant.

• Approved a cooperation agreement with Indiana Borough to outline the administration responsibilities for an RACP grant for $3.25 million under a contract with the state. The grant will provide reimbursements for eligible infrastructure improvements in the third phase of the Downtown Indiana Streetscape Project along Philadelphia Street between Sixth and Ninth streets.

• Approved a reimbursement agreement with Blacklick Township to spend about $32,000 of county liquid-fuels money to cover half of the township’s share of the cost to rehabilitate the Aultman Bridge.

• Approved a revision of the budget for the Emergency Solutions Grant Second Allocation Program to reflect a change of $3,570 between line items within the program. The ESG program supports the Pathway Homeless Shelter administered by Indiana County Community Action Program.

• Approved a contract with Westmoreland County Regional Youth Services to provide service to the Indiana County Probation Department from July 1 to June 30, 2014, at a rate of $275.30 a day. Chief Probation Officer Michael Hodak said the rate is unchanged from the 2012-13 year.

• Approved a contract with Pressley Ridge for group home services to Indiana County Children and Youth Services at rates unchanged from the past year.

• Approved a contract with Indiana Psychology Associates for service to CYS at rates unchanged from the past year.

• Reported that the Indiana County veterans ID card program has so far enrolled almost 1,000 military veterans holding DD-214 certification.

Ruddock said Sam Smith, an outreach worker in the Indiana County Office of Veterans Affairs, has stepped up efforts to enlist more area businesses to offer discounts and other incentives to those carrying the county veterans ID card. The program soon will offer window and door stickers to identify participating businesses.

Indiana County Register & Recorder Patricia Streams Warman, a coordinator of the ID program, said some of those enrolled in the ID card program live outside Indiana County.

• Recognized the Indiana County 4-H Forestry Team, including Caleb Brady, Thomas Brady and Jesse Isenberg, who recently placed first in a national forestry skills competition. Team supervisor Debbie Beisel told the commissioners that the youths are the first 4-H team from Pennsylvania to win the national contest and the only team comprised of three members rather than four to take the title.

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