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.

The Butler Island Plantation in McIntosh County, GA

Darien – Last Sunday I wandered around the Butler Island Plantation near Darien in McIntosh County, GA.  It is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is open to the public for recreational purposes.  Once a large rice plantation, the remnants now stand out along the west side of US 17 just south of Darien; as you travel along US 17 you can’t miss the tall chimney near the roadway.  Behind the plantation house set back off of the highway is the system of dikes and canals that were used to grow rice and surrounding the property is the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area, so you not only get to see a part of Coastal Georgia’s history when you visit Butler Island, you get to see part of the area’s natural beauty and wildlife.  In addition to walking the trails and dike system at the plantation, there is also a fishing bridge,  public dock, and kayak launch on the property.  A lot of people are familiar with and use the fishing bridge and the dock, but not so many I think know about the trails, dikes, and canals that can be explored and the history behind the site.

As seen from US 17, the Butler Island Plantation chimney in the foreground, the plantation house in the background.
As seen from US 17, the Butler Island Plantation chimney in the foreground, the plantation house in the background.
The signs at the entrance to the Butler Island Plantation.
The signs at the entrance to the Butler Island Plantation.

The Butler Island Plantation was created by Major Pierce Butler, an Irish officer in the British Army.  Among the properties he acquired (he spent most of his time in Charleston and Philadelphia, he was a Constitutional Convention representative for South Carolina) is the island which he named for himself – Butler Island.  The plantation he established on the island grew rice as the tides, distance from the Atlantic Ocean, and soil were conducive to rice cultivation.  Butler was the friend of a number of the United States’ found fathers and because the ready availability of slaves made the plantation economically viable, an advocate of slavery despite harboring personal misgivings on the institution.  During the Revolutionary War, he helped reorganize South Carolina’s armed forces and served as the state’s Adjutant General.  He escaped capture when Charleston was captured by the British and subsequently helped organize resistance throughout the Carolinas and Georgia.   He was a key figure in the creation of the Fugitive Slave Law which helped provide constitutional protection of slavery.  He also agreed to the Three Fifths Compromise despite his desire that slaves be counted among states’ population for purposes of Congressional representation (all this to show that while he may have been against the international slave trade, he obviously supported the institution for what he would have seen as practical and economic reasons).

Later, the plantation was inherited by Pierce Mease Butler (Pierce Butler II) who continued to operate the plantation (mostly as an absentee like his grandfather) until the Civil War. After the civil war he was unsuccessful at transforming the plantation into a sharecropping endeavor.  It was this period that made the Butler Island Plantation notorious.  Mease Butler was married to prominent English actress Fanny Kemble, whose experiences on her husband’s plantation led her to write Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. Kemble was disgusted by her experience with slavery at Bulter Island Plantation and it contributed to her divorce from Butler. Once her children were grown (age 21, which happened to fall in 1863 during the Civil War), she published Journal publicly although it already had been privately circulated among abolitionists. Prior to the Civil War, Mease Butler found himself in a dire financial situation and was forced to (famously at the time) auction 436 of his slaves in order to save the plantation.  During the Civil War, the plantation was abandoned but afterwards Mease  Butler returned in an attempt to operate through sharecropping by former slaves but it was not a success.

Signs of the rice plantation still exist on Butler Island.  As mentioned above, the most prominent is the tall brick chimney which stands out as you drive by on US 17.  This brick chimney is what is left of a steam powered rice mill.  Between the chimney and US17 and not as easily visible from the road is what is left of a tidal powered rice mill.  Behind the plantation house (it is of a later era, more about it later) is a system of dikes and canals which were designed by Dutch engineers for growing rice.

This brick chimney is what remains of a steam powered rice mill at the Butler Island Plantation.
This brick chimney is what remains of a steam powered rice mill at the Butler Island Plantation.
Closer view of the bottom of the steam powered mill chimney at Butler Island Plantation.
Closer view of the bottom of the steam powered mill chimney at Butler Island Plantation.
All that remains of a tidal powered rice mill at the Butler Island Plantation.
All that remains of a tidal powered rice mill at the Butler Island Plantation.
One of the canals that is part of the rice growing canal and dike system at Butler Island Plantation.
One of the canals that is part of the rice growing canal and dike system at Butler Island Plantation.

In 1926, the Butler Island Plantation was bought by Tillinghast L’Hommedieu (T.L.) Huston.  Prior to his purchase of the plantation, Huston had been a part owner of the New York Yankees baseball team.  Colonel Huston (from service during the Spanish American War and WW I) initially attempted to use the property as a dairy with which to raise friesian cows.  This enterprise didn’t turn out to be a success but he eventually used the plantation successfully as a truck farm growing iceberg lettuce.  The house on the property was built by Colonel Huston in 1927 and was visited by famous baseball players including Babe Ruth.  It is currently used by the Nature Conservancy.

Col. Huston's house is set back from US17 behind the remains of the rice mills..
Col. Huston’s house is set back from US17 behind the remains of the rice mills.
Close up view of the front of  Col. Huston's house, now used by the Nature Conservancy.
Close up view of the front of Col. Huston’s house, now used by the Nature Conservancy.
View of Col Huston's house from the north.
View of Col Huston’s house from the north.
A view of the back of Col. Huston's house from the dike and canal system.
A view of the back of Col. Huston’s house from the dike and canal system.

The Bulter Island Plantation is not only of interest for history buffs, it is also of interest for those interested in nature and wildlife, particularly birdwatchers.  I had a wonderful time wandering the trails and roads atop the dikes that separate the canals behind the Huston house.  During my walk around the plantation site, I saw several Ospreys overhead, Anhingas and of course American Coots and Common Gallinules and plenty of other birds.

Looking across the Butler River from the Butler Plantation dock.
Looking across the Butler River from the Butler Plantation dock.
Picnic area and trees along the Butler River by the Butler Plantation dock.
Picnic area and trees along the Butler River by the Butler Plantation dock.
Looking north up the Butler River from the Butler Plantation dock.
Looking north up the Butler River from the Butler Plantation dock.
Looking south from the Butler Plantation dock toward the US 17 Butler River Bridge and the fishing bridge.
Looking south from the Butler Plantation dock toward the US 17 Butler River Bridge and the fishing bridge.
An Osprey flying over the Butler Island Plantation.
An Osprey flying over the Butler Island Plantation.
An Osprey flying over the Butler Island Plantation.
An Osprey flying over the Butler Island Plantation.
An Osprey flying over the Butler Island Plantation.
An Osprey flying over the Butler Island Plantation.
Anhingas in a tree behind among the Butler Island Plantation canals.
Anhingas in a tree behind among the Butler Island Plantation canals.
An Anhinga with it's wings open, sunning.
An Anhinga with it’s wings open, sunning.
An Anhinga flying over the Butler Island Plantation.
An Anhinga flying over the Butler Island Plantation.
Raccoon tracks on one of trails behind the Butler Island Plantation.
Raccoon tracks on one of trails behind the Butler Island Plantation.
A track of a large bird on one of the trails behind the Butler Island Plantation (it was alongside the raccoon tracks).  I'm guessing it was from either a Great Blue Heron or Great Egret.
A track of a large bird on one of the trails behind the Butler Island Plantation (it was alongside the raccoon tracks). I’m guessing it was from either a Great Blue Heron or Great Egret.

Just south of the Butler Island Plantation is the Huston Dairy Barn wildlife viewing tower which just back from US17 behind a dairy barn that was part of Col. Huston’s efforts.  The viewing tower overlooks the marsh to the east of US17. Just south of this is another wildlife viewing tower that is farther out in the marsh but you need a Georgia Outdoor Recreation Pass to use it and wander about the rest of the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area. (I’ll update this post as soon as possible with a photo of the dairy barn itself, which is a good landmark for finding the parking area for the viewing tower.)

The Huston Dairy Barn wildlife viewing tower.
The Huston Dairy Barn wildlife viewing tower.
Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area sign along US17.
Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area sign along US17.

Sources:

  1. City of Darien Visitors Guide:  Butler Island Plantation
  2. Sherpa Guides – Altamaha River Bioreserve
  3. Wikipedia – Pierce Butler
  4. Wikipedia – Fugitive Slave Clause
  5. Georgia Pioneers – Pierce Mease Butler Plantations
  6. The Civil War in Georgia – Butler Island Plantation
  7. Wikipedia – Fanny Kemble
  8. Find A Grave – Tillinghast L’Hommedieu
  9. Vanishing South Georgia – Huston House, 1927

USS Enterprise (CVN-65)/Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW-1) Update – 11 August 2010

Here is an update on the USS Enterprise/CVW-1 Operations off of the GA/FL coast based on today’s monitoring.  The Air Wing from the Enterprise worked Townsend Range in McIntosh County hard and heavy throughout the afternoon and evening hours. They usually work Pinecastle Range south of Jacksonville instead of Townsend Range so it was a treat to be able to hear them working this close.

Special Thanks to Jared Soergel from the MilCom group, he’s visiting SC and we traded tweets on Enterprise monitoring throughout the afternoon and evening; he found several of the frequencies listed in this post.

237.700 – Marshal
317.875 – Strike
370.975 – Red Crown
278.250 – ECHO PAPA
324.350 – Tactical Operations
227.400 – Fighter Tac
230.225 – Fighter Tac (VFA-211)
315.825 – Fighter Tac
318.025 – Fighter Tac (VFA-11)
340.100 – Fighter Tac (VFA-136)
357.350 – Fighter Tac (VMFA-251)
376.425 – Fighter Tac
226.050 – unknown
239.475 – VAW-123 Tac?
348.125 – Button 9
354.725 – unknown
374.000 – Ch. 19
379.775 – unknown

120.950 – SEALORD Primary North
284.500 – SEALORD Primary North
267.500 – SEALORD Primary South

228.400 – Townsend Range

AB 1## (F/A-18F, VFA-11)
AB 2## (F/A-18F, VFA-211)
AB 3## (F/A-18E, VFA-136)
AB 4## (F/A-18C, VMFA-251)
AB 60# (E-2C, VAW-123)
SCREWTOP (E-2C, VAW-123)
HAWK (F/A-18E, VFA-136)
NIKEL (F/A-18F, VFA-211)
RIPPER (F/A-18F, VFA-11)
TBOLT (F/A-18C, VMFA-251)
RAWHIDE (C-2, VRC-40)
HAMMER (Tactical Fighter Callsign)
SWEEP (Tactical Fighter Callsign)
VIPER (Tactical Fighter Callsign)
ZAP (Tactical Fighter Callsign)
TRON (EA-6B Tactical Callsign)
OMEGA 71 (707 Contract Tanker)
TYRANT (JTAC, Townsend Range)

Saturday Afternoon DX and First QSO to Cyprus

Location: Darien, GA

After waking up this afternoon, I decided to head out and try some DX with the mobile/portable amateur radio station. I found a good spot in the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area in Darien: the Butler Plantation along the bank of the Butler River on US17 in McIntosh County. With the temperature around 90 degrees, the spot near the river provided a nice breeze that made for comfortable operating conditions.



Before trying some DX, I wanted to try working the Coastal Amateur Radio Society special event station W4W, which was in operation to help benefit a wounded 3rd Infantry Division soldier. Even coordinating frequency with Guy, K4GTM, propagation just wouldn’t support the contact.

I went on to work 6 DX Stations on 20 Meters from Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, and Cyprus. 20 Meters seemed to be pretty active with DX due to the CQ-M Interational DX contest this weekend. The contact with 5B4AIF was my first contact in Cyprus, so it was a pretty good day on the radio. In the space of just over an hour, I worked:

2014Z – 14.267 – S56DX, Slovenia
2039Z – 14.260 – 5B4AIF, Cyprus
2058Z – 14.239 – S58AL, Slovenia
2103Z – 14.245 – OE6Z, Austria
2106Z – 14.258 – OE3K, Austria
2120Z – 14.248 – 9A4KW, Croatia

Mac McCormick III, KF4LMT

McIntosh County 911 Center to Reopen

From WTOC News Story:
http://www.wtoc.com/Global/story.asp?S=12032839

McIntosh County 911 will be reopening their 911 Center later this year, probably in May. Named the Wiregrass E911 Center, it will provide 911 and dispatch for both McIntosh and Long counties according to this WTOC report. It will also contain an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Designed to survive storms, the building will have 12 inch thick reinforced walls that should survive 200 mph winds.

Mac McCormick III, KF4LMT