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.

Small Aircraft Crashes in Bryan County

Savannah – When you turn on the scanner and the first thing you hear is something along the lines of “we’ve got to find the plane first, but we’ll probably be coming back to Memorial,” you quickly get the impression that things aren’t good. That’s what happened when I got in the car this morning after breakfast and turned on the Home Patrol 2; it almost immediately stopped on 345.000 and that’s the partial transmission I heard. It seemed that there was an aircraft down somewhere in the area so I put the FT-8800 on 345.000 and 157.050 and let the Home Patrol scan. On the way home, I heard one of Chatham County’s MD-500s asking if an aircraft had been found and also heard Pooler FD units talking about looking for an airplane. When I got home, I started using multiple radios to track the activity and it quickly became apparent that an aircraft had crashed after losing its engine after takeoff from Savannah International Airport. Initially, they were looking for it in Pooler just to the west of the airport, but the search area shifted farther west to Effingham County and then Bryan County as further information came in. After several hours, the aircraft, a single engine Beechcraft Bonanza was located off of Eldora Rd in Bryan County. While I never heard it said, the nature of the traffic indicated all aboard were deceased and subsequent reports on the local news confirmed it. Since I don’t know that families have been notified, I’m not going to post the aircraft’s N-number. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those that died in the crash.

The response was a multi-agency response consisting of fire departments from Chatham County, Bryan County, and Effingham County. Chatham County MD-500s and a US Coast Guard MH-65D took part. Georgia Forestry also responded to cut an access way into the wooded/swampy area where the aircraft crashed. Units are still on scene as I write this post and it sounds like they will be for some time. Among the SEGARRN talkgroups and conventional frequencies in use today were:

SEGARRN Talkgroups
TG 199 – Chatham Aviation
TG 223 – Chatham Fire Dispatch
TG 227 – Chatham Fire Tac 1
TG 239 – SSFD Dispatch
TG 249 – SSFD Division 5
TG 263 – SSFD Medic 4
TG 415 – ANG FD 1
TG 1075 – Effingham Fire/Rescue Admin 2
TG 1541 – Effingham Fire Dispatch
TG 1663 – Effingham Incident 4 (patched to Bryan Tac 1)
TG 5090 – North Bryan FD Dispatch
TG 5108 – Bryan County Tac 1
TG 1541 – Effingham Fire Dispatch

Conventional Frequencies
120.400 – Savannah TRACON
123.025 – Savannah Helicopter Advisory
125.300 – Savannah TRACON
159.225 – Georgia Forestry D10 Repeater (PL 100.0)
345.000 – Coast Guard Air Station Savannah
413.000 – CG 410 (encrypted)

New SEGARRN Talkgroups for Chatham and Effingham Counties

Savannah – When I arrived back in Savannah this morning and checked ID Tracker III, I found some new talkgroups for both Chatham and Effingham counties. I leave ID Tracker III running at home in Savannah while I’m in Brunswick for just that reason.  The first two new talkgroups are new fireground talkgroups for Savannah Fire and Emergency Services. I’ve been expecting to hear more fireground talkgroups since Savannah Fire began riding first responder on crashes with injuries in Savannah. They now have at least seven fireground channels, up from their previous five. The third new talkgroup is from Effingham county, they have a talkgroup set aside for aviation activity on which ID Tracker III caught communications between LifeStar and Effingham Fire/Rescue units during a scene flight.

  • TG 2363 – Savannah Fire and Emergency Services Fireground 6
  • TG 2365 – Savannah Fire and Emergency Services Fireground 7
  • TG 1123 – Effingham County “51 Aviation”

What an interesting week it’s been with new talkgroups found in Chatham, Effingham, and Glynn counties!

SEGARRN Effingham County Site

Savannah – An SEGARRN (Southeast Georgia Regional Radio Network) site for Effingham County has been licensed and is active. I’m not sure how long the site has been active because I don’t get to the Effingham area as much as I used to, but the license, WQUL874, was granted and effective as of 12 August 2014. Naturally, this is a good thing for public safety agencies in Effingham County and the northwest part of Chatham County using the system, but it could also benefit Bulloch County if they attempt another move to the SEGARRN system. It’s also good news for radio enthusiasts listening to the system in those areas.

The Effingham site for the system is Site 6 (2C5-0106) and is simulcast like the rest of the SEGARRN sites. WQUL874 licenses Effingham County for seven frequency pairs at three tower locations, but the frequencies you’ll need to program your scanner for the site are the output frequencies:

  • 770.10625 – Control Channel
  • 771.08125
  • 771.48125
  • 771.80625
  • 772.18125
  • 772.60625
  • 772.88125

When I’ve monitored the site, 770.10625 has been the control channel, but even if you’re using control channel trunking only, I would still program in the other frequencies in case they rotate. I have not been able to monitor the site with Trunker yet so I haven’t been able to determine any further. It should be fairly easy to hear the Effingham site from most locations in the county; the three tower locations are roughly located central county – located at the main tower site off of Courthouse Rd., south county – located off of GA Highway 21 between Rincon and Port Wentworth, and north county – located off of GA Highway 21 between Springfield and the Effingham/Screven County line.

  • Site 1 – Main Tower Site off of Courthouse Rd (Central Effingham)
  • Site 2 – GA Highway 21/Elbert Arnsdorff Rd (North Effingham)
  • Site 3 – Ga Highway 21/Parkway Dr (South Effingham)

Some Effingham County talkgroups that have begun appearing that are probably related to this new site going live are:

  • TG 1083 – Rincon FD Admin
  • TG 1637 – Possibly Springfield FD

If they haven’t already, we’ll probably see Effingham migrate from the Chatham-Effingham TRS to the SEGARRN. What does it mean for the Chatham-Effingham TRS? I’m not sure but I imagine we’re a lot closer to it going away that we have been.  If you’re still monitoring that system with an older model scanner, you’ll definitely want to start thinking about investing in a digital scanner in order to continue monitoring public safety in the Effingham and Chatham County areas. I have had both systems programmed in my scanners but I am now going to lock out the Chatham-Effingham TRS and only listen to it if I find that I need to; that will be one less system that the radio will need to scan through.

Miscellaneous SEGARRN Scanning Notes

This post is a hodge-podge of sorts of SEGARRN talkgroup information and observations.  Some of it might be of interest and some it not so, but I thought folks interested in monitoring Savannah area public safety might find it interesting.

First, Savannah Fire’s Fireground 4 talkgroup has changed at some point.  During Monday night’s storms, Savannah Fire was extremely busy and they ended up using all five of their Fireground talkgroups as well as their Admin Channel for operations at scenes.  It was the first time I’ve heard them use Fireground 4 in awhile and I noted that it was showing up as a different talkgroup than previous.  Savannah Fire Fireground 4 is no longer TG 346 – it is now TG 2359, which was formerly used for operations at Savannah Fire’s training center.  You’ll definitely want to make this change in your scanner programming if you like listening to Savannah Fire (and I’ve sent the update to Radio Reference for those that program their scanners using its database).

Most of what I listen to on the SEGARRN system are the Fire Departments.  I’ve been interested in which talkgroups are busiest, so for the last few days I’ve been watching hit counts on ID Tracker III for the BCD396T I use for logging the system.  Some of the results have been surprising, others not so much.

TG 239 – Southside FD Dispatch – 1025 hits
TG 2307 – Savannah Fire & Emergency Services Admin – 794 hits
TG 2311 – Savannah Fire & Emergency Services Fireground 1 – 469 hits
TG 5090 – Bryan County North Fire Dispatch – 323 hits
TG 227 – Chatham Metro Fire Tac 1 – 279 hits
TG 12806 – Liberty County FD Dispatch – 231 hits
TG 5093 – Bryan County South Fire Dispatch – 229 hits
TG 493 – Pooler FD Admin – 171 hits
TG 223 – Chatham Metro Fire Dispatch
TG 415 – GA ANG Crash/Fire (Savannah IAP) – 125 hits
TG 289 – Port Wentworth FD – 124 hits
TG 1659 – Effingham Incident 2 – 121 hits
TG 1541 – Effingham Fire Dispatch – 91 hits
TG 2305 – Savannah Fire & Emergency Services Dispatch – 87 hits
TG 229 – Chatham Metro Fire Tac 2 – 64 hits
TG 213 – Savannah Fire & Emergency Services Fireground 2 – 62 hits
TG 1619 – Rincon FD – 54 hits

First, I’m not surprised that Southside Fire Dispatch has the most hits. It’s not because they’re the busiest department in the county, it’s because of how much business they conduct on their dispatch channel. Unlike Savannah Fire, Chatham’s metropolitan fire departments, and Effingham’s Fire Departments, Southside conducts a lot of their scene communications on their dispatch talkgroup instead of using tactical or incident channels. Savannah Fire only dispatches on their dispatch channel; units respond and conduct scene communications on a Fireground channel. Chatham Metro dispatches fire calls on their dispatch channel and units respond and conduct scene communications on one of the Fire Tac channels. Effingham dispatches calls on their dispatch channel and units respond and conduct scene communications on one of the Incident channels.  Particularly with Southside now having EMS coverage for the entire county, I’m surprised that they haven’t moved to a system similar to these others and use their Division channels for scene operations on a regular basis.

Second, I’m surprised that the Bryan County North Fire Dispatch channel is busier than the Bryan County South Fire Dispatch channel. I would have expected the South End with Richmond Hill (and being more populated) to be the busier one. Unlike the above observation, I’m at a loss to explain it; perhaps someone who listens more closely to Bryan County could explain. I’d also be interested in what the hit counts of the two are monitoring them on the Bryan County site instead of the Chatham site.

Finally, you can look at the short list above and see what the benefit of monitoring the SEGARRN system is. With a hand held scanner in Savannah, you can listen to not only public safety communications in Savannah and Chatham County, but in Bryan, Effingham, and Liberty counties as well.