Radio Communications Page
Updated December 21, 2012
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Cape Cod (Barnstable County)
The Islands (Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket)
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Cod's 800 Mhz Trunked
Fire Radio Communications
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September 9, 2002
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CAPE COD COMMUNICATIONS
Fire Departments have traditionally operated on the low
band in the 33 mhz range. At one time all departments
were on a single channel....33.70 mhz. As departments got
busier and communications more frequent, many departments
switched to their own "fire alarm" frequency.
The 33.70 mhz channel continued to be used as a common
"county" frequency for inter-department and
mutual aid communications. By the late 1970's all
departments were off the "county" frequency and
operating on their own channels. The county frequency
continued to be used, and is still in service today, for
mutual aid purposes.
As departments continued to grow in recent years, some added additional VHF and UHF frequencies that could be used for administrative purposes. Primary operations however, continued on the 33. mhz channels.
Today all Fire Departments utilize an 800 Mhz Trunked Radio System....See below.
Cape Cod Police Departments originally operated in the high band. The (4) channel 155. mhz police radio system was once utilized by all Cape Police Departments. Ch.1 operated by the Sheriff's Department was used for General Broadcasts (GBCs), General Info broadcasts (GIs), Be On the Look Outs (BOLOs) and other countywide communications. All departments used FCC callsigns. Each department had assigned car designations (Able, Baker, Charlie, David, Easy, etc...).
As communications increased, some departments aquired their own police channels, while others continued to use Ch.2, 3, and 4. Most of the departments continued to stay on 155. Mhz frequencies.
When 800 Mhz radios became available, some departments switched to 800 Mhz "conventional" frequencies with local repeaters. Others remained on VHF high band.
When the 800 Mhz Trunked Radio system came a couple years ago, all the departments still on the VHF high channels joined the 800 Trunked system. Departments which already had conventional 800 Mhz radio channels stayed on those.
Today, all Cape Police Departments are on 800 mhz, some trunked and some conventional.
Cape Cod Fire Departments have provided EMS service on the Cape for many years. In 1975 a 400 Mhz UHF EMS CMED radio system was installed providing ambulance to hospital communications for over 60 ambulances operating within the region. The Cape & Islands Emergency Medical Services System (CIEMSS) provided the system and the Barnstable County Sheriff's Department staffs and operates it.
Barnstable CMED is a system of radios, repeater sites, and telephone circuits which connect ambulances to (4) area hospitals. There are (6) repeater tower sites in the area, each having multiple channels available for "patches" to local hospitals. Channel 4 is the primary calling channel for rescue units. Channels 2,5,7 and 8 are available for "patching" an ambulance radio communication via phone line to the area hospital. It is a duplex system allowing two way conversations. Each channel has an input and output frequency. CMED is an active system with over 35,000 incidents per year being handled.
TRUNKED RADIO SYSTEM
A few years ago, the Massachusetts State Police radio system upgrade to 800 mhz trunking began. Cape Fire and Police Departments worked out arrangements to join with the State Police Trunking System. The result has been a considerable change in Cape Cod communications. While not yet 100% completed, the system has been utilized quite reliably now for over (2) years.
The "Trunked Radio System" is someone complex to understand and explain, but basically it is a Motorola Type II system. It presently utilizes a bank of (15) 800 mhz frequencies. Within these frequencies is a "data" channel which allows user radios to track communications by user groups known as "Talk Groups." The system utilizes several repeater sites on the Cape. All radios must reach the repeater site to transmit. A very sophisticated computer controls the whole system. These frequencies are shared by all Cape Cod Fire Departments, most Police Departments, the State Police, Environmental Police, and perhaps more.
Mobile and portable radios issued to fire departments have (3) banks of 16 channels each.
The "A" Bank, contains the home department's channel, a mutual aid dispatch channel, 5 neighboring departments, the local police channel, a Capewide Administrative channel, a CIEMSS talkgroup, and (5) common I-Call / T-Tac channels. Channel 1 in the "A" bank is a low power, Direct channel. Radios in the "A" Bank typically can scan the home channel, neighboring departments, and the mutual aid dispatch channel.
The "B" Bank in each radio contains the remaining fire department channels not included in the "A" bank.
The "C" Bank has the home channel, (3) OPS channels for major incidents, and other channels.
The "C" Bank in each radio was designed for use at multi-department incidents. Channel 1 is the Direct channel. The direct channel is a conventional 800 (not trunked). This is paired with the C2 channel which is the home department's primary channel. C1 and C2 scan each other. If for some reason, a portable in a building cannot transmit out (it is unable to hit one of the cape's repeater sites), the person in the building can switch to the direct C1 position to reach command or other units on the scene. The (3) OPS channels are similarly paired....C3 is direct/C4 is OPS 1..........C5 is direct/C6 is OPS 2......etc.... Each pair scans itself for this "backup" for emergency purposes. The direct channel frequency is the same in all positions.
The Cape does not utilize a "regional" or centralized dispatch center. Each of the Cape's Fire Departments have their own dispatch centers, each department uses its own channel (Talkgroup), and all of the departments using the "Trunked" system simulcast radio communications over their 33. mhz frequencies for tone activated pagers. Most dispatch centers have (1) A fire alarm channel for dispatch and day to day operations...simulcast over 33. mhz, (2) a countywide "Mutual Aid Dispatch" channel used for inter-department and mutual aid dispatch purposes. This is strictly used for station to station communications and is not used for mobile or portable communications. Dispatch centers then use mobile radios which can be selected as needed for access to OPS channels during major incident.
Protocol for an incident is basically as follows. Each department dispatches its incidents on their own "fire alarm" talkgroup (A2 and C2 positions on their radios.) These communications, including pager tones, are simulcast on their 33. mhz frequency. When a working fire or major incident is encountered, the fire alarm dispatcher contacts the mutual aid center via phone or the M/A Dispatch talkgroup, and is assigned an "OPS channel" for fireground / incident communications. All units responding to and operating at the incident are instructed to switch to an OPS channel (OPS 1, 2, or 3). Units on scene will stay on the OPS channel until the incident is concluded. Units given coverage / moveup assignments are dispatched by the mutual aid center on the M/A Dispatch talkgroup. As apparatus responds, it remains on its own fire alarm channel until reaching the community to be covered. Upon reaching that community, apparatus switches to the fire alarm talkgroup of the department being covered and remains on that channel for assignments. If additional moveups occur, units switch to the talkgroup of the next community being covered. It is complex and may be confusing to follow... but so far it works.
Monitoring fire communications on the Cape by scanner has actually improved greatly with the 800 trunked system. Obviously, having a newer scanner with "Trunk Tracking" capability helps to provide best control over what you hear. Listening with older, non-trunking radios has also improved, as the process of simulcasting communications has made it possible to hear portable radios as well as mobiles in most cases. Monitoring with a Trunk Tracker scanner involves programming the (15) 800 mhz frequencies and then the 5 digit talkgroups of the departments you wish to hear.
The trunked system is being improved on again at this time with additional repeater sites being installed soon to provide the desired 95%/95% coverage for in building use.
Presently all Cape Fire Departments are capable of using the 800 mhz trunked system. Mobile and portable radios, as well as dispatch center radios are in place. Due to some concerns about "in building" coverage, Hyannis and Yarmouth Fire Departments have not yet made the switch to 100% use. The West Barnstable Department has shared a low band frequency with the Barnstable Fire Department. This creates a situation with simulcasting, so WBFD has not switched to 800 mhz yet pending a new 33. mhz channel to put pagers on. All other departments are on and working well.
The Mutual Aid Center for Barnstable County (Barnstable County Control) is located at the barnstable Sheriff's Department in Barnstable. This is the center piece of Cape Fire Communications.
COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM FAILS
A fierce early morning thunder storm is getting the blame for a rather concerning
failure of Cape Cod's 800 mhz trunked public safety communications system today
(Friday July 2, 2004). The timing could not have been worse as the violent storm
with numerous lightning strikes to homes and other buildings in the area was at
its height. As fire departments began to respond to fires, the ability to dispatch
and communicate with apparatus and off duty personnel failed! The backbone
of the system, a communications site in Barnstable apparently took a direct hit,
causing circuit boards to fry. The system was down for a couple hours and was
reported to be about 80% back on at noon.
All of Cape Cod's Fire Departments, and the
majority of its Police Departments
use the 800 mhz trunked radio system, which is part of the statewide State Police
radio system. Implemented several years ago, the system enhances mobile and
portable communications by using a sophisticated repeater system that enables
radios to be heard at greater distance than the previously utilized 33 mhz
conventional radios. For the most part the trunking system has performed well.
There have however been other episodes and
failures of the system since its
inception, that have brought police and fire communications to a standstill.
These problems were supposedly addressed and appropriate backups
and maintenance in place to avoid catastrophic failures. Unfortunately, the
ability to avoid a direct lightning strike has not yet been perfected.
In response to the failure of the trunking
system, fire departments utilized
some of the old 33 mhz mobile and portable radios that are still in some
stations and apparatus. Most of the newer apparatus no longer have the
low band radios and few vehicles carry low band portables any more.
There really isn't a good backup to 800 mhz system. When the system
failed, apparatus was dispatched by phone and other means. Hardly
a reliable or efficient system when departments are being hammered
by lightning or other severe weather. Some departments responded to several
simultaneous reports of housefires
within their own community and mutual aid was
not available due to calls of their own. No major fires or serious injuries
have been reported at this time.
Compliments go out to all the dispatchers
who were working the night shift that handled this challenge professionally
and did the best they could to get help where it was needed.
No doubt, police and fire chiefs across the area
will be looking into the
failure and demanding more improvements in backup systems for our
vital communications needs.
Several 'symptomatic' problems followed over the
with a static sound trailing transmissions for a brief period and a
number of 'bonk' situations, where the ability to transmit was prevented
for some reason.
frequencies and information are provided for private legal
Information on radio frequencies gathered from various sources.
If you see any errors or have any additions for the pages please email them to me.
Copyright Britton W Crosby
All Rights Reserved