It's been eight years since Prince William officials decided they needed to upgrade the county's emergency communications system--an outdated, undependable network that puts residents at risk of not getting assistance from police officers and firefighters during emergencies.

A consultant was brought on board in 1994 to study the issue. In 1995, the Board of County Supervisors approved plans for a new $20 million system. But over the next two years, the desperately needed system ran into roadblocks--mostly questions about where to locate the tall communication towers needed for it.

Residents didn't want them in their neighborhoods. The locations for the proposed towers were discarded, and a task force was formed to set standards and find better locations.

The Police Department now says the new system is within sight, its arrival projected sometime in 2001. Police officials, who are scheduled to report their progress to supervisors Tuesday, are negotiating a contract with Motorola Inc. for dozens of new radios for the police, fire and sheriff's departments, as well as the park and service authorities. The total cost of the system is expected to be about $23 million.

The county has selected seven sites for new towers, five of them where existing radio towers will be extended to carry stronger signals. Public hearings on the towers will be scheduled next year.

"It's one of the most complex endeavors a government can undertake," said police Capt. Barry Barnard, who's heading the project. "It's a tremendous undertaking. But we're getting there."

Safety officials say the overhaul is desperately needed to link parts of Occoquan, Dumfries and other regions on the county's periphery where police, fire and other rescue crews can't communicate with dispatchers because the terrain is hilly or the radio signals are weak.

The dead spots aren't the only problem. The existing system is so old that rescue workers must compete for air time, often waiting several minutes before they can radio for help in an emergency. Also, emergency workers cannot communicate with each other.

"Let's say you have a precarious situation like a hazardous materials spill. You need to tell all the units involved in responding--what's the current situation, what roads should be blocked off, here are the staging directions," Barnard said. Right now, they can't.

The new high-tech, 800-megahertz system, with digital reception at far higher frequencies than the current one, is expected to solve those problems. Once the system is in place, the county expects to spend $3 million to stock police cruisers and firetrucks with laptop computers, called mobile data terminals.

That technology will allow police to run names through a central computer to check for outstanding warrants when making a traffic stop. Firefighters will be able to retrieve plans of a burning building to know what they face.

Two problems with the new radio towers are their height--from 180 to 300 feet, taller than cellular phone towers--and fears that they generate radiation. Those issues prompted supervisors to scrap plans in 1996 to build two transmission towers in Lake Ridge, both of them close to schools and houses.

The task force convened after the uproar recommended that any new towers be built in more remote areas or that existing towers be extended. The new locations, released last year, include a Virginia Department of Transportation storage facility along Route 15 and a site near a landfill at the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County.

The Lorton tower, across the river from Occoquan, is being built. Sites where existing towers will be heightened include Aden Road in the Independent Hill area, Manassas near the county courthouse, the McCoart Administration Building and a water tower in Haymarket.

"We've worked tirelessly to use tower sites that meet the citizens' criteria," Barnard said.