Since 2003, the Legislature has distributed more than $20 million to establish the tower system -- called the Statewide Interoperable Radio Network -- that links individual counties' emergency communications networks.
The network allows first responders to use two-way radios to talk with emergency officials anywhere in the state.
"They can go onto individual channels or all on the same channel and talk to one another," said Dave Eubank, a project technician who can monitor the use of the entire network from a computer at the Malden tower site. "One radio allows them to talk to everybody."
The microwave towers will cover 87 percent of the state after the $33 million project is completed. A 100-square-mile area surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, Pocahontas County, has strict restrictions against radio use.
"A radio will work almost everywhere else in the state," said Gonzalez, who ran a Clarksburg-based tower construction company called Tri Star Communications until 1999.
The towers, located atop mountains and tall buildings, reach as high as 480 feet from a concrete foundation.
The microwave network is "99.99999 percent" reliable, Gonzalez said. Outages are extremely rare, he said. During the June 29 derecho, only one tower lost service -- for four hours --after a generator broke down in Marshall County.
Premier Construction Group of Jane Lew is erecting the 17 new towers. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Aviat Networks sold the radio equipment to the state. Alexander Utility Engineering of San Antonio helped design the network.
State officials have speculated that the microwave project's cost could rise to $50 million, but Gonzalez said the state wouldn't spend a penny more than the $33 million in stimulus funds budgeted for the upgraded network.
"At the end of the day, we got the best investment we could," said Gonzalez, a former fire chief in Clarksburg. "This story is an incredibly good one for the citizens of West Virginia."
Reach Eric Eyre at erice...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.