Rescue Squad Members Arrested For Unauthorized Radio Use

A couple of fellow that are members of a rescue squad in Tazewell County, Virginia have landed themselves in hot water after programming their radios to operate on frequencies they were not authorized to use.

The report from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph states:

“The charges stem from an investigation into the unauthorized use and copying of the sheriff’s office channels on their rescue squad radios. It has since been learned that Baker and Dunford also allegedly programmed the Tazewell Police Department, Russell County Fire and EMS, and the Virginia State Police channels into their radios. Charges from Russell County and the Virginia State Police are pending.”

You can read the whole story on the link to the newspaper above but it won’t help clear up lingering confusion over this story if you know anything about radio systems.

It’s not clear exactly what these two guys did, and judging from past experience with the news media, they really can’t be trusted to get a story right if they’re lives depended on it.

What’s interesting is that they were said to have programmed their radios to operate on Virginia State Police channels. Since the Virginia State Police use a trunked P25 system, the radios in question would have to be able to operate on that type of trunked system and those radios tend to be very expensive.

There’s no indication that the Tazewell County Sheriff operates on a trunked system and the same is true for the fire and EMS squads in that county, in fact, there is a mix of VHF and UHF frequencies in use. The Sheriff’s office reportedly uses a digital voice format (NXDN) that’s completely different from the P25 format in use by the Virginia State Police.

Unless there’s been some initiative to bring interoperability to Tazewell County and allow rescue squads to communicate with the state police, it seems unlikely that the rescue squad would spend money on cutting-edge radios with a hefty price tag. We are, of course, talking about local government (with emphasis on government) so I suppose anything is possible.

Perhaps these two guys spent their own money on some fancy radios and wanted to make sure they could hear all the action in their area. Still, it’s hard to figure out how they programmed it for the Virginia State Police trunked system without having connections with people who are authorized to maintain that system. I suppose if the radios they were using were P25-capable, they may have just programmed the frequencies of the trunked system into their radios and monitored them as conventional channels.

If they had the expertise to “hack” their way into the state police system that’s probably a violation of some law or another right there. I doubt that happened, but I always thought you could pretty much monitor anything as long as it was not encrypted which makes me wonder if these guys decided to transmit on frequencies they were not authorized to operate on.

In any case, they somehow managed to get themselves caught and are now in trouble with the law. The newspaper story does not reveal how they were caught but I wonder if these two guys were foolish enough to brag to someone about all the nifty stuff they could hear on their radios.

Pennsylvania State-Wide Radio Woes Continue

To say that the “new” Pennsylvania state-wide radio system in controversial would be an understatement of record proportions. The system, which reportedly has been in the works for 10 years still does not appear to be working to its users satisfaction.

The system, which uses technology called “OpenSky” is manufactured by Harris Corp., which is definitely not a name that comes to mind when one thinks of land mobile radio systems. Names such as Motorola, General Electric and Kenwood are much more well-known for serving the land mobile radio industry, which includes public safety agencies such as police, fire and EMS.sky

State-wide trunked radio systems seem to be all the rage these days with states such as Virginia and North Carolina using them quite successfully according to most reports.

Pennsylvania’s decision to contract with Harris Corp. to build it’s OpenSky system has been plagued by problems since the project was first started at least 10 yeas ago. Even after all that time, complaints are still numerous with users reporting numerous “dead spots” where the radios simply don’t work as well as problems with the system simply shutting down randomly and not working at all.

The Pennsylvania State Police are one of the primary users of the system and there are allegedly reports from the field of troopers who distrust the system so much that they don’t even carry the portable radios that are supposed to keep them in touch with their dispatchers and fellow troopers via the OpenSky system.

The decision on the part of the Pennsylvania State Police to begin construction of a new backup system to take up the slack of the deficiencies in the OpenSky system appears to be a clear indicator that the OpenSky system is a complete failure. The concept of building out a new system as a backup to the system that is the primary communication system is a totally new concept as far as I know!

The new backup system, reported to have a price tag of about $11.5 million dollars makes the $400 million spent on OpenSky sound like a bargain! There’s also the fact that the state is expected to spend another $60 million on OpenSky. This brings new meaning to the old saying “throwing good money after bad.”

It’s clear that there is a culture of corruption, stupidity or greed (perhaps all three!) running rampant among the decision-makers who are responsible for state spending in Pennsylvania. It’s not entirely clear why state officials have not deep-sixed the whole OpenSky system and hauled the manufacturer into court to sue them for taking $400 million for a system that many users say does not work.

Ludicrous does not begin to describe Pennsylvania’s plan to spend $11.5 on a million “backup” radio system to function as band-aid for a broken system. Apparently the state police are being put in a position where they don’t see any good alternative and had to decide whether to use ever-scarce funding to hire more troopers or build a radio system that will actually work for the troopers already on the job.

Pennsylvania is not the only instance where the OpenSky system has garnered for itself a reputation that it simply does not work. Despite the manufacturer’s claim that the system works as advertised (isn’t that what they all say?) other OpenSky installations seem to share Pennsylvania’s problems.

West Palm Beach, Florida and Milwaukee Wisconsin have also experienced their share of problems with the OpenSky system. New York state was said to have considered installing their own OpenSky system but decided to ditch the idea when they discovered the problems other agencies were having with the system.

It’s not clear whether or not the security of the OpenSky system is either a selling point or something users are easily persuaded that they need, but currently there are no scanner radios capable of monitoring the system.

There are undoubtedly varied opinions among users if that is a good thing or not. Some police and other public safety personnel believe it is good for the public to be able to monitor their communications and serve as an extra set of eyes when they are seeking criminal suspects or even come to the aid of officers who need immediate help. Others seem sure that keeping their communications private is the way to go.

Certainly there are times when law enforcement agencies have a legitimate need to keep their radio communications private. Under cover or surveillance operations are good examples. On the other hand, some of them seem to lose sight of the fact they they are public employees that are funded by the public and therefore there should be an element of transparency where their activities are concerned. I think most scanner listeners would agree that there are times when public safety radio communications should be kept private, but those times should be the exception rather than the rule.

There does seem to be some debate about whether the OpenSky system is an option worth considering for agencies and businesses that are seeking a new trunked communications system, but for Pennsylvania, at least, it seems very probable that the system has failed. The decision of the state police to construct a new backup communications system that is independent of the OpenSky system is a pretty clear indication that OpenSky is not working in Pennsylvania and after 10 years, there’s little reason to believe that it ever will.

Forgetful Sheriff Causes Radio Problems During NATO Summit

The big news around Chicago these days is the NATO summit. With various leaders jetting in from other countries to meet with allies in the windy city, law enforcement officials have a lot on their plate. Beyond the usual worries of terrorist attacks and bomb threats there are the “Occupy” protestors and other various protest groups to deal with this year.

The fact that one local law enforcement agency has to borrow radios in order to communicate with other agencies is causing a bit of a scramble amid the chaos of the summit’s opening day.Motorola Portable Two-Way Radio

The DuPage County Sheriff’s Department apparently lacks radios required to remain in touch with their law enforcement comrades providing security for the summit and now has to borrow radios from elsewhere for the event.

One county board member says that the need to borrow radios should have never surfaced in the first place and is placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of Sheriff John Zaruba.

According to board member Pat O’Shea, Zaruba failed to sign a required “intergovernmental agreement” in a timely manner and since the agreement has to be signed by Zaruba and then approved by the county board, there was not enough time to have the radios delivered before the NATO summit.

Like anything else related to government and politics, these things take time, and Zaruba’s alleged inability to get the agreement signed left DuPage County law enforcement officials without the communications equipment they needed to talk to other agencies.

Apparently, the new radios slated for acquisition by the DuPage County Sheriff’s Department would allow them to join Illinois’ state-wide digital trunked radio system known as StarCom21. State-wide systems like that allow many agencies to use the system and enable them to communicate with each other, something that’s particularly important during major emergencies or events such as the NATO summit.

Despite the last-minute scramble for radios, the Sheriff’s “Administrative Chief” insists that everything is under control and that his agency will have a sufficient number of borrowed radios to get them through until the event is over.

With large state-wide systems like StarCom21, it’s not unusual for agencies to have extra radios on hand for emergencies, and evidently, for lending out to agencies that happen to find themselves in need during an important incident or event.

I suspect a number of other agencies were able to pitch in and provide the radios for DuPage County Sheriff personnel, although the Sheriff may have a little explaining to do to his superiors or constituency regarding the lack of equipment during a major event that they had known was coming for a year.

Chicago area scanner enthusiasts are likely getting a real earful during this event and depending on how things go with protestors and other potential disruptions, the next few days could provide some exciting monitoring opportunities.

Alleged Kidnapper Had Community on Edge

Scanning is a lot like fishing. Sometimes you can listen to your scanners for days, weeks or even months (depending on where you live) before you hear something out-of-the-ordinary. Like fishing, scanning is a great hobby for some and others aren’t the least bit interested.

Many people simply don’t have the desire to listen to dozens (or hundreds!) of routine calls before hearing something “exciting.” I’m fortunate that I work at home and I can easily have my scanners on all day as I work at my desk. Even I have to admit that it would get pretty boring if all I had to do was sit and listen to my scanners waiting for something to happen. Someone in a big city may not have that problem since there always seems to be a lot more going on there than there is out here in rural America.

Recently in Mississippi however, it appears that a lot more people got interested in scanning due to a crime that occurred in their area. A man kidnapped some women and girls and was on the lose in a wooded area with the police searching for him.

Media reports indicated that sales of both firearms and police scanners were way up because local residents wanted to both protect themselves and keep abreast of what was going on regarding the suspect who was possibly very dangerous. A police scanner is probably the single best way to get up-to-the-minute information during that type of situation and that information could be life-saving.

For example, if the police were chasing a dangerous criminal in your area and you heard that they were in the vicinity of your home, you could take preventive measures such as making sure your car and home were both locked. You may also be able to warn neighbors about the potential danger so that they could take measures to secure their homes as well.

Being aware of a situation like that could literally save your life. Desperate criminals have broken into homes and taken hostages before and not all hostage situations end well for the victims.

About a year ago I got word on my scanner that police were seeking some suspects who were possibly armed and attempting to elude police following a high-speed chase. Although the area of the search was nowhere near my home, I was familiar with the area and knew it was very close to where my brother’s in-laws lived. I called my brother so that he could alert his in-laws of the potential danger nearby. Fortunately the suspects never came close to their home, but it’s always better to have the option to avoid any potentially dangerous situations under those circumstances.

The situation in Mississippi ended with the alleged kidnapper committing suicide and leaving the victims unharmed. Although we normally associate violet crime with big cities, most of us know that we are not immune to it even in the tiniest and most remote communities. With criminals becoming more desperate and more bold these days, I feel that having a scanner gives me an extra level of protection by keeping me informed about what’s going on in my community, even though I live in one of those places where weeks or months can pass before I hear anything beyond the normal traffic stop and burglar alarm calls, I still listen nearly every day.

Body Shop Employee Uses Police Radio to Broadcast “Shots Fired”

How the individual in this story thought it might end well is beyond me. A news report from a Pennsylvania TV station brings us a story of a body shop employee who thought it might be a good idea to play around with the radio inside a police vehicle that was apparently in the shop to have some work done on it.

Of all things the employee could have broadcast over the radio he chose to use the words “shots fired.” Police in the town of Harrisburg thought that one of their own may be involved in a shooting and raced to the body shop only to discover that the not-so-bright employee had been playing with the radio.Police Cars Being Transorted

From what I was able to determine with just a little research, the Harrisonburg Police use the Dauphin County Public Safety trunked radio system for their communications. What the body shop worker probably didn’t know that many modern systems will display the unit ID of the radio to the dispatchers whenever it is used to transmit. It probably didn’t take the Harrisburg PD too long to figure out that the broadcast came from a vehicle that was in the body shop.

I suspect the body shop employee got an unpleasant surprise when the police showed up and ultimately arrested him for “reporting false information to law enforcement.” Apparently he thought that the communications system used by the police was like the telephone system was a couple of decades ago before Caller ID became widely available. Just pick up the microphone, make a bogus call and nobody will ever know who did it. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out that way.

The body shop employee hopefully has learned his lesson from this experience, but perhaps there is a take-away for the police as well. When they surrender their vehicles to be worked on by some private company, they may want to consider disabling the radio by cutting off the power to it or perhaps just unplugging the microphone and removing it until the vehicle is back in the hands of the police.

Maybe the above advice is not practical depending on whether the police department has a dedicated radio technician on staff to handle those kinds of things. I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with modern two-way radio equipment so I do not know if there are any other quick-and-easy tricks that might be used to disable a radio’s ability to transmit while it is not in the possession of the police. With most – if not all – trunked systems, any radio can be disabled from the dispatch center or other key control point in the system. Again, I don’t know if that’s a practical solution or not.

One thing I can tell you is that at various times I’ve had a two-way radio installed in my personal vehicle and I always disconnected and removed the microphone from the vehicle and also disconnected the power from it before leaving it at the repair shop. There are people out there who like playing with things they shouldn’t be playing with and the body shop employee featured in this story is a prime example.

In another example of strange behavior regarding police vehicles, I ran across a story last night out of New Hampshire where some 18-year-old male jumped into a police cruiser that had been left running at the scene of a traffic accident. The individual drove less than a mile before turning around and driving back to the accident scene where he was promptly arrested. There was some question whether or not drugs or alcohol were a factor (seems like a good possibility!) but that determination had not yet been made.

I suppose it is safe to say there are a lot of people who make worse decisions than broadcasting over a police radio for kicks or stealing a police cruiser for a brief joy ride. Here’s hoping those end up being the worst decisions those two individuals ever make.

Santa Cruz Police Encourage Public Involvement

As the old saying goes, “it takes all kinds.” While some police departments seem to bristle at the idea of the public monitoring their activity with scanner radios, other departments encourage the activity. Case in point: The Santa Cruz, California Police Department.

The department recently announced the availability of a new app for Android-based smart phones which includes features that include audio of police radio transmissions, maps indicating police activity, police photos and police videos.

Scanner users putting their scanners online for anyone to listen to is a subject that’s been debated among scanner hobbyists for a while now. Some say it’s a good thing and encourages more people to get involved with their local law enforcement agencies by watching out for potential criminals being sought by police while others say it just makes it easier for the bad guys to listen to the police and help them avoid capture.

The Santa Cruz Police have apparently weighed in with their opinion on the matter and believe that having the public monitor their radio communications does more to help police than it does to hamper their efforts. I believe they are correct. It is my opinion that there are more good people in the world than there are bad ones and when you make police radio traffic available to the public, the end result will be a positive one since many citizens will cooperate with police and lend a hand when they are able.

I’ve had my own personal experience that demonstrated to me how valuable it can be for police to have the public monitor their radio traffic. It wasn’t anything as dramatic as a high-speed pursuit or a shooting, but I do wonder what might have happened if I had not realized what was going on that day.

As one of the officers of the Santa Cruz Police pointed out, providing audio of their department’s radio traffic is not giving something away that cannot already be found elsewhere. If the department has traffic they don’t want the public to hear, they have the option to move it to a secure channel where the radio traffic is encrypted or “scrambled” and cannot be monitored by any police scanner. Or, as more and more police are doing these days, use a cell phone to discuss sensitive issues.

I think any reasonable person can understand that there will be times when law enforcement operations should not be available for the public to listen to on a scanner or a smart phone app. If a SWAT team were about to serve a search warrant on the home of a dangerous criminal, it’s perfectly understandable that they would not want their radio communications easily overheard by the criminal or his/her friends. Obviously, the element of surprise is essential under those circumstance for a number of reasons.

I believe the Santa Cruz Police Department deserves a lot of credit for making the effort to get the public more involved in their activity. Sure, there will be a few bad guys who might use the app to attempt to avoid being caught by police but I believe that number will be far outweighed by citizens who assist the police by calling in the location of a wanted individual who they happen to see on the street.

Santa Cruz Police were the very first to make an app like this available to the public which they did last year.

The app is also available on iPhone and both apps were developed by mobilePD, whose parent company is EZ Axess Inc. which is based in Sunnyvale, CA. The Android app is available to download for free on Google Play by searching for Santa Cruz police. Google Play can be accessed at: http://play.google.com.

Although the iPhone version of the app has been available for a while, iPhone users can expect their version of the app to be upgraded in the near future.

Antenna Repair & Adjustment Improves Reception For Tennessee Agency

A recent story about the repair and adjustment of an antenna that’s part of a public service radio system in Tennessee illustrated how important the antenna is as part of a communications system.

It’s hard to over-stress the importance of your antenna when it comes to the quality of the reception you’ll experience with your scanner. Like so many other aspects of scanning, requirements will vary from user to user depending on what they want to monitor.

For example, if you live in a big city and are only interested in listening to your local public safety agencies, the little telescoping antenna that is supplied with most scanner radios will probably be adequate for your monitoring needs. Most big cities have sophisticatedRadio Communications Tower communications systems that utilize repeaters which allow scanner listeners to easily hear all the local action in their city.

On the other hand, someone living out in the countryside and who may be interested in monitoring their county sheriff, volunteer fire department and highway patrol may be facing more of a challenge due to their distance from transmitter sites. The use of repeaters are wide-spread these days but there are still many small agencies that still use direct or simplex communications, making it much more difficult to hear everything that’s happening.

Like everything else in life, your ability to enjoy excellent reception depends on how much you are willing or able to spend on equipment. Going beyond the telescoping antenna or “rubber duck” antenna that was supplied with your scanner radio, you can start pretty basic with a relatively inexpensive antenna and some coaxial cable which would allow you to mount the antenna in your attic, on your roof or perhaps on your balcony if you are an apartment dweller.

You will be surprised how much of a difference you will notice even when using a simple antenna mounted in one of the locations I’ve mentioned. You can purchase a good scanner antenna from a number of online vendors along with the coaxial cable and connectors you will need to connect the antenna to your scanner. Those who are new to scanning will be better served to call a vendor on the phone and explain what you are trying to accomplish so you can avoid buying the wrong equipment.

For those with the desire and resources to take it to the next level, you can spend many thousands of dollars erecting towers and mounting expensive antennas on them which are connected to your scanner (s) with very high-quality, low-loss coaxial cable. This is not an option most hobbyists want to embrace, but those that do will enjoy top-quality reception that may rival what the commercial installations are capable of.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but it’s important to mount your antenna as high as you possibly can. The higher you are able to mount it, the better your reception will be. An interesting way to experience the difference antenna height can make, take your scanner along if you have any locations in your area that are high above the surrounding location. This could be a hill or mountaintop or even the upper floors of a skyscraper. You’ll be amazed with the improvement of your scanner reception in these locations. That’s why you always see clusters of antennas located on mountaintops, water tanks, tall buildings and other locations that are well above the surrounding terrain.

If you mount your own antenna, just remember to keep safety in mind. Having a scanner antenna mounted on your roof or a radio tower will not be of much use if you are not around to use it! Always use the proper safety equipment and be aware of potential hazards such as using an aluminum ladder in close proximity to power lines.

East Cleveland Firefighters Radio Woes

Some fire fighters in East Cleveland, Ohio reportedly had a close call while they were fighting a fire in a residential structure. According to news reports (see video below) the problem may have been the result of faulty portable radios.

I’m a little skeptical about the faulty radio theory, but before I get into that, let’s consider the rest of the story that was reported. The firefighters were inside the burning home attempting to extinguish the fire when they called by radio to the operator of the fire engine outside to request that the water be turned on for the hose they were manning.

The operator manning the engine reportedly never heard the request over the radio and as the video shows, a couple of Motorola portable radios are shown that appear to be in rather tough condition. This is probably not surprising to many firefighters since they have a difficult and dangerous job that involves a lot of physical activity such as tearing down walls and ceilings, breaking down doors, smashing windows, climbing ladders and other vigorous physical activity.

Although beat-up portable radios make for good news video, my years of experience with radio equipment suggests to me that the damage that is visible on those two portable radios is not sufficient to render them inoperable.

It’s important to stress that I am talking only about the visible damage that is apparent on the radios and it is quite possible that there is internal damage to the radios that has rendered them inoperable. Obviously, that cannot be determined from just looking at them.

The antennas on both portable radios appear to be broken and one can certainly argue that they are broken, but to me, the damage appears to be cosmetic. Those “rubber duck” antennas are basically springs (yes, I have taken them apart in the past) enclosed in a flexible rubber-like casing. If the spring itself is not severed, the broken external rubber casing has little or no effect on the radio’s ability to transmit or receive signals.

There’s also the question regarding how the firefighter’s radios were configured to communicate with each other on the scene of the fire. If, like most fire departments, they were operating on a “fireground” frequency that enabled them to communicate directly between the radios, it would be highly improbably for a broken antenna to result in loss of communication from a firefighter inside the house to one just a hundred or so feet (if that) away manning a fire engine. I would expect that they would have a good chance of communicating under those circumstances even if the portable radio had no antenna at all! With both parties in such close proximity, it doesn’t take much to get a signal from one radio to the other.

On the other hand, if the radios were operating through a repeater – which I find a bit unlikely, or just plain silly if true – there is a much greater chance of poor communications since the portable radios would first have to reach the repeater radio and then be re-broadcast from there to the other firefighters on the scene.

Without delving into the details about “direct” versus “repeater” communications, I’ll just say they repeater communications allow for radio users to communicate over greater distances while direct (also called “simplex”) communications are much more reliable if you are communicating with another radio that’s very close to you.

I suspect there is more to this story than the media is presenting here. Showing a couple of portable radios with antennas that appear to be broken doesn’t really help us get to the truth of what really happened. They don’t even say that the radios shown on the news story are the radios that were actually in use by the firefighters that experienced the alleged communication problems!

Unless the radios that were shown do have internal damage, a simple replacement antenna should have them looking much better and probably only cost $20 or less if the city isn’t being overcharged by some vendor. I say “looking much better” since I suspect the visible damage to both of them is probably just cosmetic as I mentioned above.

Don’t take the wrong message away from what I’m saying here. I firmly believe that firefighters and all public safety personnel should have reliable communications at all times and should not have to deal with faulty equipment. If I were in their position and were standing in a burning house with a dry hose trying to get the water turned on, I sure as hell would want my radios working properly!

I guess what I’m saying is that I always tend to be skeptical about the real truth behind a story being reported by the media. It’s hard to determine what the real problem is after seeing this story reported. Were the radios faulty or not? If so, by all means get them repaired or replaced. The story is just a bit too ambiguous to draw any firm conclusions from.

Police Scanner Seized with Guns and Drugs in Florida

Unlike our last story of a failed scanner-toting “lookout” at a Florida frat party, this incident involves crimes of a much more serious nature. After a shooting in Lee County, sheriff’s deputies were patrolling the area of the Harlem Heights neighborhood where the shooting took place.

The deputies observed a man fleeing from the area upon seeing the deputies and was able to escape by entering a nearby home. When deputies obtained a search warrant for the home, they entered and found a number of firearms, drugs and a handheld police scanner.

Although all of us are innocent until proven guilty, these items being located in a home suggest that criminal activity may have been going on there.

Unfortunately, the presence of a police scanner in the home will offer more ammunition for those that believe that police communications should not be accessible to the general public.

We often see stories about criminals who use police scanners in their efforts to avoid capture, but there are also stories of citizens with scanners who have helped police capture criminals after hearing a description on their scanner radio.

I suspect that the incidents of citizens assisting law enforcement by using scanners outnumber the incidents of criminals using them to try to stay one step ahead of law enforcement. I’ll keep an eye on the news and we’ll see how things balance out as time goes on.

College Student Uses Scanner To Warn Underage Drinkers

This guy surely isn’t going to win the prize for “Best Use of A Scanner,” that’s for sure. In most states – if not all – it is illegal to use a scanner during the commission of a crime. It’s people like this that tend to give scanner listeners a bad name.

According to news reports, the student in question was posted at the rear gate to a house where a frat party was going on where underage college students were drinking alcohol. Apparently someone did call the cops to report this party, but despite the efforts of their “lookout” with the scanner, police busted up the party and caught a number of students trying to dispose of the “evidence.”

There were reportedly approximately 125 partygoers on the scene.

The student who allegedly used the scanner to monitor University of Florida Police frequencies must not have been very adept at using a scanner since he was arrested and charged with “unlawful use of police communications” which is a a second-degree misdemeanor in the state of Florida.

The 19-year-old was later released on a $1000 bond from the Alachua County jail and will hopefully avoid misusing a scanner again in the future.