Choosing a Scanner for the Coastal Georgia Area

One of the questions I get on a regular basis is about what kind of scanner to buy. Until this year, I didn’t have any experience with Whistler’s scanners, so it was a question that I was uncomfortable asking. All I could truthfully do was pass along my experiences with Uniden’s equipment and why I like their radios. Now that I have some experience with Whistler’s TRX-1 and TRX-2, I feel more qualified to answer the question. Most people who ask me that question are interested in Public Safety communications so my suggestions here will be based on that and the assumption that you’re going to be using it in the counties and communities along the Georgia coast.

Before making a decision about which radio to buy, you have to determine what type of radio systems you’ll be listening to. Are the radio systems you’ll be listening to be conventional or trunked? Will they be analog or digital? If they’re digital, are they P25, DMR, or NXDN? The best place to find answers to these questions is at RadioReference.com; go to the Georgia database and look at each county you’re interested in scanning to see what they’re using. In our case, the counties along and just off of the Georgia coast use a combination of digital trunking and analog conventional radio systems. Bryan, Chatham, Effingham, Liberty, and Glynn counties use the SEGARRN trunking system, which is a regional multi-site P25 Motorola trunking system. Brantley, Camden, Charlton, Long, McIntosh, and Wayne counties use analog conventional radio systems. None of the public safety agencies in those counties are currently using DMR or NXDN.

It’s worth taking a break here to mention that law enforcement dispatch channels for most agencies in Chatham County and Glynn County are encrypted. That means you won’t be able to hear most law enforcement agencies in Chatham County when they’re talking to dispatch and with the exception of Glynn County PD’s primary dispatch channel, you won’t be able to hear most of Glynn County PD’s channels and none of Brunswick PD’s channels. There is a steady trend toward encryption in law enforcement communications and it’s illegal to decrypt encrypted communications. Please don’t use the comments section below to debate encryption, it is what it is.

Now you need to determine whether you want a handheld scanner that you can carry around with you, a desktop scanner to leave on an end table or desk, or a mobile scanner for your car. Most people will go with either a handheld scanner or a desktop scanner. My suggestion is usually to go with a handheld scanner, it gives you more versatility because you can carry it with you wherever you go and you can always put it on your end table or desk and plug into the wall to keep from using up its batteries.

The next thing you have to do is acquaint yourself with the radios available, what they do well, and what they don’t do well. Below are the scanners currently available that I have experience with along with a description and what each does well and doesn’t do well. Depending upon where you buy the radio from, you’re looking at a retail price of $400 to $500. I’ve included a link to each on Amazon, but there are plenty of other places you can order them from including ScannerMaster and amateur radio stores.

 

Uniden Home Patrol 2

  • The Home Patrol 2 is designed for desktop use, but it can also be used as a mobile scanner. It has a large display that gives you a lot of information in a very readable form.
  • It comes pre-programmed with a national database; all you have to do is enter your location and tell it what types of communications/agencies that you want to listen to.
  • It has a very easy to use touch screen interface; if you can use a touchscreen GPS in your car or a smartphone, you can use the Home Patrol 2.
  • It does not receive DMR or NXDN systems.
  • It comes with software that will update the scanner’s national database and firmware to keep it current and up to date and you can also use it to create custom programming files for the radio if you so wish. Uniden has also made their protocols available to third-party developers and there are a number of options that make programming those custom files easier and offer computer control/logging of the radio.

 

Uniden BCD436HP

  • The BCD436HP is a handheld scanner.
  • It comes pre-programmed with a national database; all you have to do is enter your location and tell it what types of communications/agencies that you want to listen to.
  • Its user interface will take some getting used to. Once you get used to its menus and the how to navigate through them using the tuning knob and keypad, it’s fairly intuitive to use.
  • It will receive DMR or NXDN systems, but the capability comes at an added price. You have to do a $60 upgrade to add each, so if you add the capability to do both, you’re adding another $120 to the price of the radio. They don’t have to be done as soon as you buy the radio and you don’t have to them at the same time, so you can spread the additional cost over time. On the other hand, you don’t have to do either if you don’t have the need for them (and to listen to public safety in this area, you don’t)
  • It does a great job on P25 trunking systems but not as good a job as the Whistler scanners on DMR systems. Recent firmware updates have given it the capability receive NXDN systems but I haven’t had the opportunity to put it to the test yet.
  • It comes with software that will update the scanner’s national database and firmware to keep it current and up to date and you can also use it to create custom programming files for the radio if you so wish. Uniden has also made their protocols available to third-party developers and there are a number of options that make programming those custom files easier and offer computer control/logging of the radio.

 

Uniden BCD536HP

  • The BCD536HP is the desktop/mobile version of the BCD436HP with a few added features.
  • It comes pre-programmed with a national database; all you have to do is enter your location and tell it what types of communications/agencies that you want to listen to.
  • Its user interface will take some getting used to. Once you get used to its menus and the how to navigate through them using the tuning knob and keypad, it’s fairly intuitive to use.
  • It will receive DMR or NXDN systems, but the capability comes at an added price. You have to do a $60 upgrade to add each, so if you add the capability to do both, you’re adding another $120 to the price of the radio. They don’t have to be done as soon as you buy the radio and you don’t have to them at the same time, so you can spread the additional cost over time. On the other hand, you don’t have to do either if you don’t have the need for them (and to listen to public safety in this area, you don’t)
  • It does a great job on P25 trunking systems but not as good a job as the Whistler scanners on DMR systems. Recent firmware updates have given it the capability receive NXDN systems but I haven’t had the opportunity to put it to the test yet.
  • It comes with software that will update the scanner’s national database and firmware to keep it current and up to date and you can also use it to create custom programming files for the radio if you so wish. Uniden has also made their protocols available to third-party developers and there are a number of options that make programming those custom files easier and offer computer control/logging of the radio.

 

Whistler TRX-1

  • The TRX-1 is a handheld scanner.
  • It comes pre-programmed with a national database; all you have to do is enter your location and tell it what types of communications/agencies that you want to listen to.
  • Its user interface will take some getting used to. You will have to get used to navigating through its menus with the keypad. In my opinion, it isn’t quite as intuitive as Uniden’s interface and some actions require more keypress and menu navigation than the Unidens do.
  • It will receive DMR and NXDN systems out of the box, with no additional cost.
  • It does a great job on DMR and NXDN systems but not such a great job on P25 trunking systems (particularly 700/800 MHz systems). In side-by-side tests, I’ve noticed that it will miss some transmissions that the Uniden radios don’t.
  • Whistler’s software for the TRX-1 will update the scanner’s national database and firmware to keep it current and up to date and you can also use it to create custom programming files for the radio if you so wish. It is, however, a bit clunky and slow and Whistler has chosen not to make its protocols available to third-party developers.

 

Whistler TRX-2

  • The TRX-2 is the desktop/mobile version of the TRX-1
  • It comes pre-programmed with a national database; all you have to do is enter your location and tell it what types of communications/agencies that you want to listen to.
  • Its user interface will take some getting used to. You will have to get used to navigating through its menus with the keypad. In my opinion, it isn’t quite as intuitive as Uniden’s interface and some actions require more keypress and menu navigation than the Unidens do. This makes it less desirable as a mobile scanner.
  • It will receive DMR and NXDN systems out of the box, with no additional cost.
  • It does a great job on DMR and NXDN systems but not such a great job on P25 trunking systems (particularly 700/800 MHz systems). In side-by-side tests, I’ve noticed that it will miss some transmissions that the Uniden radios don’t.
  • Whistler’s software for the TRX-2 will update the scanner’s national database and firmware to keep it current and up to date and you can also use it to create custom programming files for the radio if you so wish. It is, however, a bit clunky and slow and Whistler has chosen not to make its protocols available to third-party developers.

 

Now that we know something about the radios, we can make a decision on which one to purchase. Going back to the beginning, we established that Public Safety agencies in our area use either P25 trunking systems or conventional analog systems. As far as the conventional analog systems go, the Uniden and Whistler radios handle them equally well. As far as I’m concerned, the decision is made when you look at P25 capability. The Unidens simply outperform the Whistlers on those systems, especially when they’re 700/800 MHz systems, which is what the SEGARRN system is. If you plan on traveling with your scanner to areas that use DMR or NXDN systems, the Unidens will do good enough to get you by on a temporary basis.

Which Uniden radio should you go with? That depends on how you plan to use it. If you just want a scanner to sit on your end table or desk, I would go with either the Home Patrol 2 or BCD536HP. If you want to go with a handheld scanner, I would go with the BCD436HP. If you want to put a scanner in your car, once again I would go with either the Home Patrol 2 or the BCD536HP. In choosing between the Home Patrol 2 and the BCD536HP, I think the main consideration would be your experience level followed by how much room you have to mount the radio in. If you’re a novice user, I would suggest the Home Patrol 2 because its user interface is much simpler to understand and use. If you’re more experienced, you may want to go with BCD536HP. The Home Patrol 2 will also fit in a smaller space than the BCD536HP.  If you plan on traveling with your radio, the BCD436HP and BCD536HP do offer you the capability to add DMR and NXDN reception if you need it.

There are 2 other Uniden options that I have not discussed because they are radios that I have no experience with – those are the BCD325P2 handheld scanner and the BCD996P2 desktop/mobile scanner. They are essentially the next generation of Uniden’s older BCD396XT BCD996XT scanners. They offer P25 Phase II reception just like all of the radios above do and are also upgradable for DMR reception. They’re slightly less expensive than the radios above but they also don’t come with pre-programmed databases. If you buy one of these, you’ll have to program it with the radios systems you want to listen to. I have used the BCD396XT and if these two radios perform anything like it does, they will be excellent performers. If you’re a more experienced user who wouldn’t have much problem programming them, you may want to consider them, but if you’re a novice user, you may want to keep your eyes on the BCD436HP, BCD536HP, or Home Patrol 2.

I hope you don’t come away from this post with the idea that the Whistlers are bad radios because they aren’t. Whistler simply approaches the task at hand with a different method than Uniden does. The two brands do different things well and it just so happens that the things that Uniden does well fit our area better. If we were surrounded by DMR and NXDN systems rather than P25 trunking systems, my suggestion would have been the Whistler radios instead.

By no means did I get into the specifics of each radio and all the bells and whistles each one comes with, but hopefully I went over enough to help you make a decision on which radio to buy if you’re in the market for one.

Correction:  I initially posted that the BC325P2 and BCD996P2 were NXDN upgradable, but they are not. I’ve corrected the text above and I apologize if I’ve caused any confusion.

Camden County, GA Scanning Changes

In other Camden County radio news, the VHF public safety radio systems in Camden County recently (this week) switched from regular FM to narrowband FM (NFM) transmissions; transmission remain analog.  In addition to going narrowband, they also moved to a new output frequency on the Camden County S.O. repeater in order to alleviate interference with the St. Marys P.D. repeater.  The new output frequency for the Camden County S.O. repeater is 151.385 instead of the old 159.165 which interfered with the St. Mary’s P.D. repeater.

With the exception of reprogramming the one frequency in your scanners, all you’ll have to do for Camden County frequencies is change the receive mode from FM to NFM.  If you have an older scanner that doesn’t have the NFM setting, don’t worry – you’ll still be able to hear them, it just won’t sound quite as good as it did before.

If you’re interested in such things, you can see the license modification information for the S.O. repeater here.

Camden County Amateur Radio Society Subvets Memorial Special Event Station

On Friday, 4 November 2011, the Camden County Amateur Radio Society operated a special event station at the St. Mary’s Submarine Museum on the St. Mary’s, GA waterfront.  The special event station was part of the weekend’s Subvets Memorial being held at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base to honor submarine veterans on “eternal patrol.”  I found out about the event via the CCARS Facebook Page  and decided to run down after work on Friday morning to take part.

I arrived at the museum around 0830 and helped Pete – K4QHR, Frank – AK4LN, and Glenn – W4ULB get the antenna for the station set up.  The antenna was an interesting setup made from an extendable fiberglass pole with the antenna wire run up through the middle to form a collapsible vertical. The wire ran to a switchable matching network with a very nicely constructed homemade ferrite bead balun then to coax to the transceiver.  (If you look in the photo of the antenna, you can see the museum’s submarine periscope just to the right.) Due to some circumstances beyond their control, things didn’t quite get off the ground immediately, but they did get on the air quickly with Frank’s QRP station and moved onto to normal QRO operations later.  By the time I had to leave to get back to Brunswick and get some sleep, only a few contacts had been made on 20 Meters but I understand things improved later in the day. I also fired up the mobile station and made a contact with them.

On the way back to Brunswick, I left the mobile rig on and listened to Frank calling CQ to see how far I could hear his 5 watt station on ground wave.  Interestingly enough, I could still hear him all the way out to GA Highway 40 and I-95 (around 11 miles) but I lost him quickly as I headed back north on 95.

It was a great way for amateur radio to help honor the submarine veterans and I’m glad I got to help them get set up if not help operate.  If you find yourself in the St. Marys area, take some time to drop by the Submarine Museum; it isn’t a big museum but it’s packed with excellent and historic displays. You won’t be sorry you visited!

Submarine Vets Memorial Special Event Station

Yesterday, I learned that the Camden County Amateur Radio Society will be operating a special event station on Friday, 4 November 2011 from 0900 local until at the St. Marys Waterfront Submarine Museum in St. Marys, GA.  They will be using the club call KB4CC.

I’ll be in Brunswick on Friday, so I plan on heading down to St. Marys on Friday morning after work.  Check my Twitter account while I’m down there for frequency updates.

Coastal Georgia Forest Fires

Location:  Brunswick, GA

Yesterday evening on my way back to Brunswick I began hearing forest fire fighting operations on Georgia Forestry frequencies and the Glynn County TRS as I got close to Glynn County.  After reading some text messages and Facebook messages I had, I ascertained that it was coming from the forest fire in Waverly, GA in Camden County (just south of the Camden/Glynn line on US17).  This afternoon, I went out and used the mobile monitoring station to find some active frequencies for the fire:

154.280 – Mutual Aid – Operations
151.145 – GFC District Admin
159.285 – Forestry Southeast Compact – GFC Operations
155.010 – Camden County FD
122.975 – Air Ops

As of this afternoon, there were three helicopters working the fire:  TROOPER 3, TROOPER 5 (both GSP helicopters) and 15F.  Based on GFC traffic on 154.145, 15F is from Ocala.  I also heard traffic on both 122.975 and 151.145 from SMOKEY # which sound like fixed wing aircraft, probably spotter planes.  Before one of the SMOKEY aircraft departed the area, there was discussion of contacting the National Guard, so there is the possibility of ARNG CH-47s from Hunter AAF being involved.  There are numerous Georgia Forestry Tractors and assets involved as well as Camden County and Glynn County FD (that I know of, I wouldn’t rule out units from other counties as well).

Yesterday evening, 159.390 was in use at the Waverly fire, but what I heard there this afternoon was mostly from Ware and Pierce GFC units on other fires.  Yesterday evening, the EVENT C talkgroup of the Glynn County TRS was being used by Glynn County FD for their operations but I haven’t heard it in use today.

Additionally, Glynn County FD has also been working a brush fire on GA99 near I-95 (Exit 42).  The fire is just west of I-95 on the south side of GA99.  Operations I’ve heard for that fire have been on usual Glynn County TRS talkgroups.