The first sight -- and more notably, sound -- of Montgomery County's $36 million upgrade to its emergency dispatch system will be some of its 4,700 new radios Wednesday.
The Norristown police department are receiving the initial batch of radios, which will eventually be distributed to the county's police, fire and EMS departments before the system upgrade comes online in 2017, county officials said Tuesday.
A cloud still hangs over the system, however, in the form of a holdout town that county officials have been unable to persuade to install a 180-foot antenna needed to complete the system's radio coverage.
That town is Upper Merion, which County Commissioner Josh Shapiro and some staff called out last week during a monthly board meeting.
Assistant County Solicitor Josh Stein suggested Upper Merion's elected board of supervisors were obstructing the installation of a county antenna on Hughes Road. The location, he said, is owned by the state police and already has a 150-foot antenna.
Stein and a county spokeswoman pointed to a local ordinance enacted by Upper Merion in November 2015 -- months after the county first approached the town about a new, taller antenna -- that restricted installation of any new "communications towers" throughout the entire town.
Without the antenna, parts of Upper Merion, Bridgeport, West Conshohocken and Lower Merion could have spotty coverage within the emergency dispatch system.
"They're having a negative impact on their surrounding communities," Shapiro said of Upper Merion.
The network of antennas are an integral part of the upgraded system, expected to significantly improve the ability of county dispatchers to communicate with emergency personnel like firefighters and police.
"More towers are needed to increase coverage and increased capacity (number of channels) is needed because the system gets bogged by the volume of use during major events," according to a county report on the project.
Upper Merion Manager David Kraynick disputed the notion that the ordinance restricting new towers and antennas was put in place specifically to stymie the county.
"It was not site specific and had nothing to do with them," Kraynick said Friday of the ordinance. "We've had other communications companies come in and put up these [antennas]. Communities throughout southeast Pennsylvania are having the same issue. This is a very common thing that’s happened as these telecommunication companies have been putting in these antennas."
He reiterated what he said earlier last week after hearing about the county's public protestations.
"I think they're either confused or raising an issue that is not specific to the heart of the issue," Kraynick said. "They have to go before the zoning board and seek a variance."
He said one of the main issues remains: Eight households along Hughes Road are close to the antenna site.
County spokeswoman Lorie Slass dismissed the claim that other towns have enacted similar restrictions.
"If other townships in the region have enacted similar restrictions, they did not impede our ability to build or improve the towers like Upper Merion has," Slass said. "At this point it is about ensuring the radios work and protecting public safety. We believe there is a simple path forward – by creating an exception only in support of public safety uses – that will accomplish that goal and we want to work with Upper Merion to move it forward. The Commissioners will be reaching out to them this week asking them to join us in making this happen."