County Executive Agrees to Location of Emergency Communication Tower

County Executive Agrees to Location of Emergency Communication Tower

Elrich still considering alternate location for second tower

| Published:

Photo via Pete Piringer

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich is no longer objecting to the location of a tower needed to complete the county’s new emergency communication system.

In a letter to County Council members this month, Elrich said the county and the state will collocate, or share, a tower in Olney for the county’s new system, as previously planned.

Earlier this year, Elrich directed county leaders to find alternate locations for two of the 22 already approved tower sites — one in Olney and one near Bretton Woods Golf Course in Seneca. He cited public outcry about the appearance of the towers in the neighborhoods and what residents felt was a lack of transparency in the planning and design process.

County Council members have said the objections could have delayed the build-out of the new system by at least a year.

Elrich countered by telling county officials they could temporarily activate the new system with 20 towers and add the two other towers later.

In early July, Governor Larry Hogan chided Elrich for delaying the new system and said the state will build one of the towers necessary for the full build-out of the county’s system.

About 20 local, county and federal agencies will use the new system, including the county police department, U.S. Park Police, and the county’s fire and rescue services.

Some towers, including the Olney site, also will be part of a state communication system, giving Hogan authority to determine those locations.

The aging system attracted county leaders’ attention after a 12-hour “major disruption” over Mother’s Day weekend in May. At times, the outage knocked out about 75% of the available radio channels police, firefighters and rescue crews use to communicate. The system has suffered several shorter, less severe disruptions since, and agencies are creating backup plans in case the system experiences a “catastrophic failure” before a new system is in place.

The new plan, Elrich wrote, is to continue looking for an alternate location for the Bretton Woods tower. If the alternate site can’t be finalized by December 2020, he suggests the new system go live with 21 towers. Elrich said he “commits to bringing it on-line promptly, so we have the complete coverage we contracted for.”

“You have expressed grave concern about the state of our public safety communications system. I share those concerns,” Elrich wrote to the County Council in the four-page letter. “I would not, and have not, put public safety at risk.”

Elrich wrote that the contracted vendor has provided him and council members with maps that show a 21-tower system would provide coverage for at least 93% of the county, while the current system offers 80% coverage. The full, 22-tower system is expected to provide coverage for 98% of the county.

The coverage maps, provided by Elrich’s office to Bethesda Beat, show areas of adequate coverage in green, with the rest of the county shaded a tan color. The map of the current system shows areas around Rockville, Silver Spring, east of Germantown and along the Potomac River as the primary areas without adequate radio coverage. The new, 22-tower system would provide coverage for most of those areas with some lapses around Silver Spring, White Oak and east of Germantown.

The map for the 21-tower system looks similar to the 22-tower map with additional areas lacking coverage near the Potomac River.

11-tower system
A map showing coverage provided by the current 11-tower emergency communication system.
21-tower system
A map of the projected coverage provided by a 21-tower emergency communication system, excluding the Bretton Woods tower.
22-tower system
A map of the projected coverage provided by a 22-tower emergency communication system.

On Tuesday, the County Council plans to hold a public hearing and vote on an amendment to the county’s six-year capital improvements plan that will update the definition of the emergency communication system modernization project to include the locations of the 22 proposed tower sites.

The action would force Elrich to move forward with implementing the complete system unless he introduces a budget amendment to redefine the project or specifically identify an alternate site for the Bretton Woods tower.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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