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The sound of (mostly) silence
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Last April, I wrote an article called “Switching frequencies” about how local agencies were on track to meet federal emergency communication mandates. In short -- and this is a somewhat complex issue -- local agencies all across the country needed to meet “interoperability” and “narrowbanding” requirements by Dec. 31.

Based on what I’m hearing on our scanner -- or not hearing, actually -- I’d say the Camden Police Department (CPD), Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), fire services and EMS met the deadline. I say that because I’m hardly hearing anything at all.

“Interoperability” meant that agency heads -- say CPD Chief Floyd and KCSO Sheriff Jim Matthews -- could stand side-by-side during an emergency and present their two forces as a unified front against whatever they were facing. That grew out of the complications discovered while dozens of agencies -- local and national -- tried to deal with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Narrowbanding, on the other hand, is the act of narrowing the bandwidth of the frequencies on which these emergency agencies operate. For decades, such frequencies were 25 MHz “wide” (i.e., how much space they took up in the radio spectrum). Now, they must be only 12.5 MHz wide.

I’m going to focus on this most, because it’s what has caused the sound of (mostly) silence to fill my office.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) realized it was running out of frequencies to license frequencies, especially in terms of cell phones and other wireless technology. As far back 1987, the FCC set aside frequencies in the 800 MHz range (800-899 MHz) for local, regional and public safety use. Narrowbanding fits in here because those frequencies are already set for narrow bandwidths.

In the early 1990s, South Carolina created the Palmetto 800, or PAL 800, radio and mobile data system. This works in the 800 MHz range.

Interoperability comes back in to play with a desire for agencies to be able to communicate with each other. That doesn’t mean everyone has exactly the same radio or that everyone in the state (much less across the country) operates on the same frequencies, or channels as they are often called.

Enter the world of digital radio communications. The new two-way “radios” are more like wireless computers that transmit voice and other data to each other. They can be programmed. As it was explained to me last year, if an agency comes in from Georgia to work with folks here in Kershaw County on a particular emergency, their devices could be quickly programmed to work with the ones our officers use.

The same would happen if Camden officers went to Myrtle Beach to help out there. They’d just hand over their radios to be reprogrammed and, voila, they can communicate with their MB counterparts.

So what’s this “silence” I’m hearing?

Well, these are digital channels we’re talking about, which means our old analog scanners can’t pick them up. We can still hear a number of fire and other emergency calls because they are being “patched” back to the analog system. If I remember correctly, that was done because not every firefighter had access to digital capable pagers to pick up the transmissions from the new system.

In any event, we can hear those calls. In some cases, we can both “sides” of the call -- dispatchers and the responding units. In other cases, we can only hear the dispatchers.

The CPD and KCSO? Nada.

Now, we could purchase a digital scanner and program them ourselves. We’d have to make sure we got one that can handle a “trunked” system. Again, I’m not an expert at this, but here’s what I understand: the CPD, for example, has a number of these digital channels assigned to them. There are sub-channels “within” the package, including ones they can use to call in and others dispatchers can use to call out to them. Supposedly, there are scanners that can handle digital trunking, but I’m not sure.

On top of everything else, there’s also the chance that the transmissions are encoded or encrypted. So, even if we found out exactly what channels are being used, we still might not be able to hear them or, if we can, understand what’s being said. If encoding is taking place, it may not matter what kind of scanner we buy.

So, now we have times where we see or hear patrol or unmarked cars blaring down U.S. 1 and have no idea where they’re going or why because we didn’t hear the call that got them going in the first place.

It’s frustrating, but we actually do understand and support the reasons for all this. Certainly, we want our law enforcement officers and emergency crews (including public works!) to be able to communicate efficiently. And, if some transmissions are being encoded ... well, we certainly don’t want the bad guys to know the good guys are on to them.

In the meantime, I’ve put a “call” in to the folks at RadioReference.com, a website dedicated to such things in the hopes that they can clear up some of my questions about this. My reasons are selfish ... hearing scanner calls makes it easier for us to jump on to a breaking story. They’ve made a few suggestions; we’ll see … er, hear, what happens.

While we’re waiting, do me a favor? If you see or hear something going on, let us know. Call us at 432-6157, give us a heads-up on our Facebook page, or send me an email at the address below.