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.

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.

NIMS Talkgroups on the SEGARRN and Chatham-Effingham TRS

Savannah, GA – In my previous post, I mentioned NIMS talkgroups.  If you listen to the SEGARRN and/or Chatham-Effingham TRS, the NIMS (National Incident Management System) talkgroups are something you will want to be aware of.  If you listen to public safety communications and you haven’t programmed them into your scanner, you’ll definitely want to remedy that.  The NIMS talkgroups are listed below with the SEGARRN talkgroup IDs in regular type and the Chatham-Effingham TRS talkgroup IDs in italics:

  • 2051/32816 – NIMS Common
  • 2053/32848 – NIMS Command 1
  • 2055/32880 – NIMS Operations 1
  • 2057/32912 – NIMS Logistics 1
  • 2059/32944 – NIMS Planning 1
  • 2061/32976 – NIMS Command 2
  • 2063/33008 – NIMS Operations 2
  • 2065/33040 – NIMS Logistics 2
  • 2067/33072 – NIMS Planning 2
  • 2069/33104 – NIMS Command 3
  • 2083/33328 – NIMS Operations 3
  • 2085/33360 – NIMS Logistics 3
  • 2087/33392 – NIMS Planning 3
  • 2389/38224 – NIMS Reserve A
  • 2391/38256 – NIMS Reserve B
  • 2393/38288 – NIMS Reserve C

The NIMS talkgroups are interoperability talkgroups.  Whenever there is an incident or event that involves multiple jurisdictions or agencies, the NIMS talkgroups might be used for communications.  Every agency might not have everyone else’s Dispatch or Tac channels in their radios, but every radio on the two systems should have the NIMS talkgroups programmed into them.  That means everyone on the incident has a common set of talkgroups that they can operate off of, making interoperability easier.  A good example of the use of the NIMS talkgroups is St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah; some of them have been used for St. Patrick’s Day the last couple of years.

Fort Stewart/Hunter AAF 380 MHz TRS Update – 4 May 2013

Savannah, GA – Thanks to a southeastern Georgia radio hobbyist, I can pass along an updated list of Fort Stewart/Hunter AAF 380 MHz TRS sites.  385.8875 has been identified as Site 206 in the Pembroke area.  That would leave Site 203 to be found and I suspect it is probably going to be somewhere to the west, between Hinesville and Glennville, perhaps?   If anyone finds and identifies it, please let me know.

I was in Brunswick for the last ten days, so I haven’t had a chance to listen to it much but so far it doesn’t seem that there has been any talkgroup activity.

System ID:  058A

388.3250 – 058A-0201 – Derst Bakey/Hopkins St site
388.2500 – 058A-0202
388.3375 – 058A-0204 – Likely in Richmond Hill area
385.6250 – 058A-0205
385.8875 – 058A-0206 – Pembroke

New 380 MHz Trunked Repeater System in Coastal Georgia

Savannah, GA – Earlier this week I was intrigued when the Savannah Morning News, WSAV, and WTOC began reporting that homeowners in the Ardsley Park neighborhood of Savannah began reporting that their garage door openers weren’t working.  Many theories were mentioned but as soon as I saw the report I had a feeling I knew what it was – a 380 MHz Trunked Repeater System.  In the Savannah Morning News article above, Chuck Watson hit the nail on the head; 380 MHz military land mobile radio systems are well known as a source of interference for garage door openers.  Since I was in Brunswick all week, I was unable to confirm it but additional news reports from the Savannah Morning News and WSAV later in the week confirmed Chuck Watson’s theory and my suspicion; Hunter AAF indicated that there was a new system on line (although officials didn’t think it was yet) and a report from WTOC even gave the location for the site causing the issue:  a tower near Derst Bakery on Hopkins St.  It is important to keep in mind that the military radio system really isn’t at fault here; the garage door openers are secondary users of the frequencies and must accept interference from the military systems which are the primary users of the frequencies in question.

On the way home from Savannah this morning, I ran a search to see if I could find the system and in Liberty county I began picking it up.  So far, the system has four sites working in Liberty/Bryan/Chatham county areas.  So far, all I’ve heard are control channels with no talkgroup activity.  My best guess is that it is a system that will be replacing the Ft. Stewart/Hunter AAF 400 MHz trunked repeater system.  Here’s what I’ve heard so far:

System ID:  058A

388.3250 – 058A-0201 – Derst Bakey/Hopkins St site
388.2500 – 058A-0202
388.3375 – 058A-0204 – Likely in Richmond Hill area
385.6250 – 058A-0205

There’s certain to be a site 0203 but I haven’t heard it yet and is likely to be in the Fort Stewart area somewhere.  I’ll update in the future as I discover more.  It’s always fun to have a radio mystery to figure out!