April 24, 2017

From The Begining: Communications Monitoring

In the beginning pages of Down-Grid Communications, several considerations were put forth for the readers.  They were:
  • The lack of viable broadcast news media even at the present situation mandates that you conduct communications monitoring activities in order to get an accurate picture of activities in your area of operations (AO).  During certain scenarios, this capability will become even more important.  If you do nothing else in the way of radio communications, you must at least have a good communications monitoring setup.
  • Your communications equipment will need to be capable of operating independent of the power grid.
  • The lack of consistent reliable electric utility service in many scenarios means that you will have to produce your own power for communications.
  • The limited quantity of electricity from self-generation means that you should use the lowest amount of RF power needed to establish reliable communications.
  • Many scenarios will have you operating in field locations.  Your equipment should be portable or at least easily transportable.
  • Commercial electronic repair facilities will not be available in a long-term grid-down scenario.  At best you may have access to a retired electronic repair technician or advanced hobbyist with a small collection of parts and basic test equipment.  Some of your equipment should be capable of being repaired under these conditions.
  • Socio-political effects of certain scenarios may make it necessary for you to implement some form of communications security (COMSEC). Depending on the specific type and severity of the scenario, you may be facing threats ranging from bandits with a police scanner to a professional signals intelligence (SIGINT) asset.
These bullet points are the items of importance that one must keep in mind when setting up down-grid communications capability.  Over the next few issues, we will be discussing these considerations in greater detail, and providing updated information.

The first consideration is the most important of all, and sadly the one that is usually the most ignored.  It would appear that most individuals are more interested in getting transmitting capability (To whom? And why?) than they are in getting useful intelligence  information from their area of operations.  This attitude needs to change.  To refresh the reader's memory, the first consideration is:
  • The lack of viable broadcast news media even at the present situation mandates that you conduct communications monitoring activities in order to get an accurate picture of activities in your area of operations (AO).  During certain scenarios, this capability will become even more important.  If you do nothing else in the way of radio communications, you must at least have a good communications monitoring setup.
Since this was written, the need for conducting communications capability has not diminished, and listening is still >2X as important as transmitting.  A good communications monitoring setup is still considered an essential requirement for any survivalist.  Fortunately, only a minimal amount of commercial off the shelf equipment is needed to set up a modest, but very effective monitoring post in the corner of one's home.

Like any down-grid communications equipment, most, if not all, of your monitoring gear should be capable of running independent of electrical grid power.  That means it should be capable of being powered off of batteries or 12V DC.  This can be at odds with running older tube gear in case of an EMP event.  Some older tube-type radios will run on DC.  Do your research.

The lack of viable broadcast media is still applicable from a tactical standpoint, especially in regard to disaster communications monitoring.  However, from a strategic dystopian present-state standpoint, observation of broadcast media is a useful tool to gauge current and future majority trends.  This is important as your status as a minority group means you need to keep an eye on certain things the masses are thinking and worrying about.  In particular, the things that might affect you.  Also, certain potentially interesting and/or useful memes can be detected and used to your advantage, provided you have the skills to do so.

For example, I was recently watching a show on PBS that featured individuals who were disconnecting from their electronic tethers (aka cellphones).  Intelligence information of such a nature can always be exploited to an advantage by those with the right training.  Psychological operations and propaganda are beyond the scope of this article, but as the well-known axiom states, “Keep one's friends close and one's enemies closer.”  Consider suspect anyone who disparages the act of monitoring mass media broadcasts, often along with throwing out the term “brainwashing”.  You cannot be brainwashed by watching PBS or listening to NPR, especially when you already know their sociopolitical bias.  The worst it might do is make you check some premises, which as a survivalist is not a bad thing.  Let me clue you into a little secret.  Sometimes your biggest problems come from people who claim to be on “your side.”  I have seen more outright lies, fake news stories, and bogus “intel reports” from web sites who claim to be patriot, militia, and three-percenter than I have seen from CNN, PBS, ABC, NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox.  I have also noticed that the more vocal sites are the worst offenders.

With that said, the first pieces of equipment for your monitoring post are items you might already have.  They are an AM/FM portable radio and small TV set.  If possible, both should be hooked up to good quality external antennas to maximize reception capability.  FM broadcast band (Broadcast Band) and TV antennas are available via Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, or most home improvement-type stores (Home Depot, Menards, etc.)  Portable radios come with an internal ferrite antenna for AM Broadcast Band reception which works adequately, but for distant reception, I use a Grundig AN-200 loop antenna, especially when trying to isolate two stations on the same frequency.  Loop antennas have excellent directional characteristics.

The primary stations you are trying to reach are your local PBS and FOX affiliates, as they are your best bet for broadcast news media coverage on the two sides of the nominal political spectrum.  In most places, an omni-directional antenna should work to receive both stations, but I recommend you install a directional “fringe reception” antenna for reasons I will disclose later.  On FM and TV broadcast, a good setup should enable you to receive stations out to a 60 mile radius depending on your location and antenna arrangements.  AM broadcast will have a shorter reception range during the day, and start crossing state lines to offer regional-plus coverage at night.  AM Broadcast Band DX reception at night is the nature of the beast.  TV and FM Broadcast Band reception range will generally be line-of-sight unless the VHF/UHF bands are experiencing some form of enhanced propagation.  Don't bother with getting cable or satellite TV service.  It is an added monetary expense, and you probably have better things to spend the money on.  I live in the region that is among the furthest in the Continental United States from any Interstate highway, and am able to get the necessary TV stations off the airwaves for free.  If I can do it here, you should be able to do it where you are.

Broadcast news adds one more level of information to help with putting together a picture of what's going on in your area.  As an example, within the past month, a Facebook user posted up a video, presumably taken in the Denver, Colorado area, of a freight train transporting a quantity of armored vehicles.  A screen capture of said video is shown at left.  Disregarding the poor video quality and vague information provided with the video (typical of many “militia” and “3per” “intel reports”), routine monitoring of broadcast stations would have brought up this recent story from KKTV, a CBS affiliate TV station in Colorado Springs, CO:
http://www.kktv.com/content/news/Inside-Fort-Carson-soldiers-training-at-Armys-National-Training-Center-392529521.html
Further research showed that this news story was the first in a series about soldiers from Ft. Carson who are presently training at NTC.  If your area of operations included Colorado Springs, that would be a good news story series to watch and record for later detailed analysis.  Because that's what you do when you want to know what's going on around you.

Setting up a modern TV for reception is trivial.  You turn it on, and have it scan the channels.  It will find local stations that are on the air, and identify them for you.  All you then have to do is check the schedule for the times of news and “current affairs” shows that interest you.  AM/FM is a little more involved.  You will have to tune the dial through the broadcast spectrum, identify what's transmitting in your area, and then check schedules for the times of news and “current affairs” shows that interest you.  First scan both the AM and FM bands during the day, then after dark scan the AM band again.  The reason you should scan the AM band a second time at night is because signals in that frequency range travel much farther at night, and you will be able to hear stations way beyond your local area.

Nighttime AM talk radio is home to fringe shows that provide information of an interesting nature, but remember to verify what you might hear.  No mention of nighttime AM talk radio would be complete without mentioning the Coast-to-Coast AM show, a paranormal news/talk show originally created by fellow desert rat and ham radio enthusiast Art Bell, W6OBB.  It's now hosted by George Noory (weeknights) and George Knapp (Sundays), and is on every night from 1AM – 5AM Eastern/10PM – 2AM Pacific time.  If you are up late one night, give it a listen.  At the very least you'll be entertained.

Your best bet when starting out is seeing how many of the “big guns”, the Class A high-power unlimited clear channel AM stations, you can hear from your location.  Here is a list of all Class A AM Broadcast stations in the United States as of October 2nd, 2016 when the FCC database search was made.  You can do your own search via the Internet at https://www.fcc.gov/media/radio/am-query#block-menu-block-4 .

Class A AM Broadcast Stations:

Callsign    Frequency (Khz.)  Location
KYUK         640                        BETHEL, AK
KFI            640                        LOS ANGELES, CA
WSM         650                        NASHVILLE, TN
KENI         650                        ANCHORAGE, AK
WFAN        660                       NEW YORK, NY
KFAR         660                       FAIRBANKS, AK
KDLG        670                       DILLINGHAM, AK
WSCR       670                      CHICAGO, IL
KBRW       680                       BARROW, AK
KNBR       680                       SAN FRANCISCO, CA
KBYR       700                       ANCHORAGE, AK
WLW        700                       CINCINNATI, OH
WOR        710                       NEW YORK, NY
KIRO        710                       SEATTLE, WA
WGN        720                       CHICAGO, IL
KOTZ       720                       KOTZEBUE, AK
WSB        750                       ATLANTA, GA
KFQD      750                       ANCHORAGE, AK
WJR         760                      DETROIT, MI
KCHU      770                       VALDEZ, AK
WABC      770                       NEW YORK, NY
KNOM     780                       NOME, AK
WBBM     780                       CHICAGO, IL
KGO         810                      SAN FRANCISCO, CA
WGY        810                       SCHENECTADY, NY
KCBF       820                       FAIRBANKS, AK
WBAP      820                       FORT WORTH
WCCO      830                       MINNEAPOLIS, MN
WHAS      840                       LOUISVILLE, KY
KOA         850                       DENVER, CO
KICY        850                       NOME, AK
WWL        870                       NEW ORLEANS, LA
WCBS       880                      NEW YORK, NY
KBBI        890                       HOMER, AK
WLS         890                       CHICAGO, IL
KOMO      1000                     SEATTLE, WA
WMVP      1000                     CHICAGO, IL
KDKA        1020                     PITTSBURGH, PA
KVNT        1020                     EAGLE RIVER, AK
WBZ         1030                     BOSTON, MA
WHO        1040                      DES MOINES, IA
KYW         1060                      PHILADELPHIA, PA
KNX          1070                     LOS ANGELES, CA
KOAN       1080                      ANCHORAGE, AK
KRLD        1080                      DALLAS, TX
WTIC         1080                      HARTFORD, CT
KAAY         1090                      LITTLE ROCK, AR
WBAL        1090                      BALTIMORE, MD
WTAM        1100                     CLEVELAND, OH
KFAB          1110                     OMAHA, NE
WBT           1110                      CHARLOTTE, NC
KMOX         1120                    ST. LOUIS, MO
WBBR         1130                    NEW YORK, NY
KWKH         1130                    SHREVEPORT, LA
WRVA          1140                   RICHMOND, VA
KSL            1160                    SALT LAKE CITY, UT
WWVA        1170                    WHEELING, WV
KFAQ          1170                    TULSA, OK
KJNP           1170                    NORTH POLE, AK
WHAM         1180                   ROCHESTER, NY
KEX            1190                     PORTLAND, OR
WOAI         1200                    SAN ANTONIO, TX
WPHT        1210                    PHILADELPHIA, PA
KSTP         1500                    ST. PAUL, MN
WFED        1500                   WASHINGTON, DC
WLAC        1510                   NASHVILLE, TN
WWKB       1520                   BUFFALO, NY
KOKC        1520                   OKLAHOMA CITY, OK
KFBK        1530                   SACRAMENTO, CA
WCKY       1530                   CINCINNATI, OH
KXEL        1540                   WATERLOO, IA
KNZR       1560                    BAKERSFIELD, CA
WFME      1560                   NEW YORK, NY

One of the best radios for AM reception can be had cheaply at your local junkyard, tag sale, or flea market.  Look for a stock OEM car radio, preferably from AC Delco.  Due the vehicle environment they need to work in, they are equipped with exceptionally good noise suppression circuitry.  They run off of 12V DC, which makes them good for off-grid types, and are also designed to work with shorter antennas.

Other broadcast stations of particular interest would be small non-profit “community” stations.  They usually operate in the FM broadcast band between 88 MHz. and 92 MHz., although I have heard some on AM.  This is also the same part of the band where you will usually find college stations and NPR.  This stations usually feature non-mainstream programs, and air time can often be purchased for a nominal fee for an individual or small group to produce their own radio show.  The extent and nature of these stations will vary widely from region to region, and your best bet, as always, is to scan the band to see what you can hear.

I mentioned in a previous paragraph that I recommended installing a high-performance “fringe reception” antenna for FM and TV broadcast reception, even if it's not needed for local stations.  The reason is because you should always aim for maximum performance out of your monitoring post as there may be times when you need it, especially when trying to listen to lower-power stations that feature non-mainstream programming, or when something happens to your local broadcast station(s).

On September 11th, 2001 there were 12 different TV stations broadcasting on top of the World Trade Center in New York City.  Only one station, WCBS Channel 2, had a backup transmitter located on the Empire State Building.  There was also a smaller community station which had their primary transmitter on ESB.  When the towers collapsed, all 12 stations went off the air.  My friend “Craig Johnson” who was living in Queens at the time recalled to me in a recent conversation how he was picking up adjacent channel and co-channel TV stations in New Haven, CT and Philadelphia, PA at his monitoring post when WABC Channel 7 went off the air (they were located at WTC).  As a stopgap measure, many of those stations relocated to Armstrong Tower in Alpine NJ, 18 miles north of the city.  Viewers in Woodlawn might have had better reception, but the same wouldn't have been the case for those in Rockaway Park.  Having that extra reception capability comes in handy when a station goes off the air, and you have to receive their back-up location, or a station that's located in another distant city.

Broadcast band reception is a good place to start, as you probably have most, if not all, of everything to proceed, and the monetary investment to upgrade the capability is minimal.  Installing an FM/TV reception antenna is a good beginner project that helps prepare you for more advanced work, and the same applies to AM and FM band-scanning, especially AM since it has some nice DX characteristics at night.

Another item you will want to get is a NOAA weather/all hazards radio.  This is a receiver that listens to the NOAA broadcasts on 162.400-162.550 MHz.  Many receivers are equipped with a decoder (SAME – Specific Area Message Encoding) that puts the radio in standby mode until an alert is received.  All VHF/UHF police scanners will receive the NOAA broadcasts, but not all of them have a SAME decoder.  NOAA receivers are useful because they will alert you to the most common disaster situation you will have to face, historically speaking, which is weather.  They will also, thanks to SAME, remain silent until an alert is generated for your area.

So far I have mentioned broadcast media intended for the general public that is available with commercial off the shelf consumer electronics equipment that you could pick up at Wal-Mart or anywhere else.  An AM/FM radio, TV, and NOAA weather/all-hazards radio will give if nothing else but an adequate overview of general news, sociopolitical status of your local region, agenda direction of your local establishment, and warning of approaching hazardous weather conditions.  All of that is important to help you put together a picture of what's happening around you, and what you might have to worry about in the future.  Now we starting expanding the range out further with Shortwave listening.

The Shortwave bands (1.7-30 MHz.) offers worldwide communications capability, yet many emergency communications concerns (like Amateur Radio ARES/RACES, and state/federal emergency management agencies) use it for regional communications via NVIS (Near Vertical Incidence Skywave) propagation when VHF/UHF communications are unable to do the job.  Shortwave is also the home to a variety of international broadcasters from across the globe.  These stations provide yet another news viewpoint, one that is different from what you'll get from domestic broadcasters.  This is important because no single source of news/information will give you the complete picture, and all sources will have a particular slant or bias.  By collecting news from multiple sources you can eliminate the bias/slant factor and actually get an idea of what's going on.

Make sure you get a shortwave receiver that has the capability to receive Single Sideband (SSB) communications.  SSB is a narrow-band voice communications mode used by amateur radio operators and government/business “utility” stations on shortwave.  You will also need SSB capability to monitor the various digital modes used by amateur radio and utility  stations.  Many inexpensive low-end receivers will only demodulate AM signals used by shortwave broadcasters.  You can tell if a receiver has SSB capability by looking for the word “sideband” or letters “SSB” on the mode switch, or by looking for a BFO (beat frequency oscillator) control on the radio.

I advise you to get the best shortwave receiver you can afford, because you should/will be spending a lot of time listening to this frequency range.  A good receiver will cover from the AM broadcast band (or below) up to 30+ <MHz.  This includes every HF amateur radio band, international broadcasters, “utility” stations run by military and government agencies, assorted clandestine stations that show up anywhere on the spectrum, and CB communications.

Shown to the right is the excellent Icom R-75.  It's a good radio, and one that I would recommend.  It's an easy to use unit, but has enough room for you to grow into.  It receives AM, SSB, CW, and FM from 30 KHz. to 60 MHz.  This starts way below the AM broadcast band, and goes into the VHF low-band and past the 6 meter ham band.  It is the last of the analog architecture (non-SDR) Icom shortwave receivers.  Icom recently discontinued this radio, but they are still available new for around $600.  You can find one used for under $300 if you look around and don't act like an asshole.  Otherwise they sell in the $400-$500 range.

I like the R-75 because not only is a really good performing receiver for the money, but it also covers up into the VHF low and mid-bands that are used by the military for tactical communications, and by public safety and industrial users for regional interoperability.  Military tactical radios operate from 30-88 MHz. in 25 KHz. steps.  When not in ECCM (frequency hopping) mode they typically transmit with a PL/CTCSS tone of 150 Hz. (the standard 151.4 Hz. tone will decode it just fine).  Also, a lot of clandestine radio users typically operate using AM, FM, or SSB from 25-33 MHz. for local and regional communications using modified 10/11 Meter ham rigs or “export CB” radios.  These are the usual terms used to identify radios originally designed for the 10 Meter ham band or the 11 Meter CB band that have been modified to operate on the “uppers and lowers”, the frequency ranges above and below the bands.  Such CB hobbyists are known as “freebanders”, “Hfers”, or “skip shooters”.

Any recent vintage (within the past 30 years) HF amateur radio transceiver should also have “general coverage receive” capability from ~1.7-30 MHz.  If you eventually plan on getting an amateur radio license and operating on HF, you may want to purchase one instead.  Many survivalist types have been happy with the Icom IC-718 and Yaesu FT-857 transceivers.  What you get is not as important as getting something and practicing with it.  However, if you really have no plans of getting on the air with HF amateur capability, you might save some money by simply getting a good used receiver.

Different frequency ranges in the SW band offer better reception depending on the time of day.  As a rule of thumb, the frequency range between 1.7-6 MHz. best propagates at night, 15-30 MHz. are daytime frequencies, and 6-15 MHz. works adequately 24 hours a day.

Your best bet for starting out listening are international shortwave broadcasters.  They run AM mode, and operate on fixed frequencies and schedules.  The US domestic broadcasters are the easiest of the lot to hear, but most of them are all religious programming.  The best, and perhaps most entertaining, US domestic broadcaster is WBCQ1, “The Planet”, out of Maine.  Their motto is "Free Speech Radio."  It is run and operated by former pirate broadcaster Allan Weiner of Radio Newyork International fame.  They operate on 7.490 MHz., 9.330 MHz., 5.130 MHz., and 3.250 MHz.  The best time to listen is on the weekends.  To find information on other shortwave broadcasts, visit the following sites:
The Shortwave bands are also used by state and federal government agencies  for long-distance communications.  These communications are referred to as “utility” stations, as opposed to “broadcast” stations.  State emergency management homeland security agencies are among the most prolific users of HF, and every state maintains a  communications network.  When voice is utilized, communication will in Upper Sideband mode (USB).  You can use the FCC General Menu Reports web site to find frequency data for your particular state.

HF Public Safety Frequencies In the American Redoubt Region:
Frequency (MHz.) - States
2.3274 - Montana, Wyoming, Idaho
2.4154 - Wyoming, Idaho
2.4204 - Wyoming
2.4404 - Montana
2.4644- Montana
2.4724 - Idaho
2.5364 - Idaho
2.8054 - Montana, Idaho
2.8134 - Montana
5.1364 - Montana, Idaho
5.1414 - Montana, Idaho
5.1964 - Montana, Wyoming, Idaho
7.4784 - Montana, Idaho
7.4814 - Montana Disaster & Emergency Services
7.8064 - Montana, Wyoming, Idaho
7.9334 - Montana, Wyoming, Idaho
15.5050 - Montana (Fish-Wildlife-Parks)

Amateur radio is another major user of HF communications, and you will want to monitor the various ARES, RACES, disaster response, and Skywarn nets in your region.  A Google search will be able to find your specific frequencies.  You will also want to take note of AmRRON, The American Redoubt Radio Operators Network.  Their website is at http://www.ammron.net/.

VHF Low-Band

Many HF receivers (and all police scanners) have reception capability up into the 30-50+ MHz. range.  This is known as the VHF-Low Band.  It is a transitional part of the spectrum that has been less utilized as of late.  Many of its characteristics that caused former Low Band LMR users to move up in frequency make it useful for survivalist types, especially in rural areas.  Most of the time Low Band is line of sight propagation, with the advantage of handling hilly terrain better than higher frequencies.  When propagation conditions are favorable, world-wide communications become possible.  It's disadvantage is that the lower frequency makes proper antennas longer in length than the VHF-High or UHF bands.  The longer wavelength also means decreased propagation and more difficult communications in urban terrain.  VHF-Low Band is really for for rural and wilderness use when infrastructure needs to be minimal and “line of sight” communications range longer.  Keep this in mind for future reference.

For our monitoring purposes, many regions use VHF-Low Band for regional mutual-aid and intersystem networks.  With a proper antenna, communications can be monitored over a greater distance than on higher frequency bands.  Since these frequencies are for mutual-aid and intersystem use, they are only active during system tests or a major incident.

Due to the large amount of military and commercial surplus out there, the frequency range of 20-76 MHz. should be considered a priority range for monitoring and band searches.  Within that range, 25-32 MHz. has the most priority due to the ready availability of off-the-shelf CB radios, 10 meter ham radios, and modified “freeband” versions of both.  Expect to see AM, FM, and SSB modes in use.  In this part of the spectrum, one can normally expect to hear communications up to 20 miles away or more depending on terrain and band conditions.  When conditions are optimal, worldwide reception is possible.

Tactical FM manpack and vehicle sets of 1950s and 60s vintage (PRC-8, PRC-9, PRC-10, RT-66, RT-67, RT-68, RT-70) are capable of operation between 20-58.4 MHz.  More recent FM tactical sets (PRC-25, PRC-77, RT-524) are capable of operation between 30-76 MHz.  A lot of these radios, particularly the older models, have made it to the surplus market and remain in operational condition.  The military and federal agencies are significant users of this spectrum, with operations concentrated on the frequency ranges of 30-30.55, 34-35, 36-37, 38-39, 40-42, 46.6-47, and 49.6-50 MHz.  Many TV broadcasters have moved off the lower channels (2-6 or 54-88 MHz.) with the transition to digital, leaving broad swaths of unoccupied spectrum that may be exploited for clandestine communications.  The author recalls many a night during down-time on an FTX tuning his Humvee's RT-524 above 54 MHz. to hear the audio of a local TV station during the 10/11 O'Clock news broadcast.  Alas, such a technique is no longer viable with the digital transition.  Yet, the way the spectrum is these days you never know what you might come across by tuning though these presumably dead spaces.

Monitoring Tip:
Some older multi-band portable radios from Radio Shack et al are capable of tuning the TV bands. They will typically have “TV1” for Channels 2-6, “TV2” for Channels 7-13, and “UHF TV” for Channels 14-83. The frequency ranges break down as follows:
Channels 2-6: 54-88 MHz.
Channels 7-13: 174-216 MHz.
Channels 14-83: 470-890 MHz.
These receivers can be used to check for clandestine “white space” activity, and communications above 54 MHz. where the VHF-Low coverage on many police scanners ends. Also note that the former UHF channels 59-83 are now allocated for land mobile and common carrier radio use.

VHF Low-Band Frequencies Of Interest:

Frequency (MHz.) - Use
25.04 - Business/Industrial, Hazmat Response
25.08 - Business/Industrial, Hazmat Response
27.49 - Business/Industrial, Itinerant
27.51 - Business/Industrial, Low-Power
27.53 - Business/Industrial, Low-Power
33.12 - Business/Industrial, Low-Power
33.14 - Business/Industrial, Low-Power
33.40 - Business/Industrial, Low-Power
34.90 - Military
35.04 - Business/Industrial, Itinerant
36.25 - Business/Industrial, Hazmat Response
36.71 - Military
36.89 - Military
37.60 - Power Utility, Intersystem
38.50 - Military, Common National Guard Frequency
39.46 - Police, Mutual-Aid
40.50 - Military
40.71 - Business/Industrial, Hazmat Response
42.98 - Business/Industrial, Low-Power
43.04 - Business/Industrial, Itinerant
45.86 - Police, Mutual-Aid
45.88 - Fire, Mutual Aid
47.42 - American Red Cross
46.30 - Fire, Low Power/Mobiles

With the mention of VHF-Low band, we cross into the spectrum covered by “police scanner” receivers.  They cover various frequency ranges from either 25~30 MHz. up to at least 960 MHz. with 1300 MHz. being the top end in most cases (see text frame).  High-end models typically cover 25-1300 MHz. continuous with the exception of the 800 MHz. common carrier “cell phone” band in units made after 1994 for domestic US consumption.  These are “local” frequencies used by public safety, businesses, and hobbyists.  From a monitoring standpoint, most of your local information of a tactical nature will be collected here, and it is on these frequencies you will find out the truth as to what's going on in your town.  In fact, a police scanner is the only way you will hear the unvarnished truth as to what's going on in your area of responsibility.  With that in mind, a police scanner is the second major equipment purchase you should get after defensive weaponry.  The good news is that a police scanner will cost you  about half the price of an AR-15.

The best scanner receiver for your purposes as a beginner is the Uniden Home Patrol II.  It comes pre-programmed with the excellent nationwide scanner frequency database from http://www.radioreference.com/.  All the user has to do is enter in their zip code, and the scanner will program itself for their area.  A GPS receiver/antenna can be attached to the scanner, and it will self-program according to the location data it receives.  The Home Patrol II also has a discovery mode that will search the spectrum for activity to determine its location, and program itself.  The Home Patrol II will demodulate both Phase 1 and Phase 2 P25 modulation, and will track communications on trunked radio systems.  Both P25 and trunked radio systems are seeing increasing use by public safety agencies from local up to federal.  This is a good beginner's scanner because it is the easiest unit for a beginner to program.  Enter in your Zip Code and a few seconds later you are ready to go.

I cannot overstate the importance of having a police scanner among your survivalist electronics kit.  In the grand scheme of things they are reasonably priced, readily available now, and invaluable for finding out the truth about what's going on in your town.  Sell off an extra gun if you need to in order to buy yourself a Uniden Home Patrol II.

Jungle Telegraphs

Back in the heyday of CB, I became aware of group who was using CB to conduct their allegedly less than legal business activities.  They developed a verbal code system that sounded like small talk to the casual listener, and was 100% secure from a technical standpoint.  One of the members was arrested for something or another, and became an informant, which shows you that the real problem with maintaining effective communications security is the human factor.

At the time, there were a number of social groups who used CB to stay in touch and trade gossip.  Each had their own channel, and with 40 channels to pick from there was plenty of room for everyone.  Channel 19 was always popular in areas near an Interstate highway.  Some groups went so far as to purchase high-end radios with SSB capability, and some took up “freebanding”, operating on the unofficial illegal CB bands above and below the usual 40 channels.

Many areas still use a discrete CB channel as a local jungle telegraph.  Most of the time they will be running AM on one of the standard legal 40 channels, but it is worthwhile to band search 25-28 MHz. in AM, SSB, and FM modes.  A proper antenna should enable you to monitor local jungle telegraph nets out to a 20 mile radius at night when daytime skip conditions are not active.  In urban areas, FRS/GMRS handheld radios are used in addition to CB as a local jungle telegraph, particularly among younger users.  Ham operators in an area will usually have a discrete, usually 2 meter, simplex frequency they will congregate on, and I'll guarantee you it won't be 146.520 MHz.  Do your research.  Band searches during the evening hours are your best bet, if you can't find it by asking around.

It was survival communications blogger “Dan Morgan” who first mentioned the “bubba detector.”  It is an inexpensive police scanner that is programmed with common handheld/portable VHF/UHF radio frequencies to be used as a means of detecting activity out to a couple of miles.  This is a great idea, and should be among the first electronic intercept capabilities you acquire.  The best way to do this is to get a Radio Shack Signal Stalker I (one), or Uniden Close Call police scanner.  These two are the best types to get for this purpose.  Signal Stalker I and Close Call are full-spectrum nearby RF detection modes that can run in the background while scanning memory channels.  When a nearby (average 1000 feet, but out to one mile for base stations) RF signal is detected, the scanner will give an alert, display the frequency of the signal, and allow you to hear the transmission.  This feature is available on the following scanners:

Signal Stalker I, Radio Shack:
PRO-83, PRO-84, PRO-2051 , PRO-433, PRO-528, PRO-160, and PRO-162.

Close Call, Uniden:
BC-72XLT, BC-75XLT, BC-92XLT, BC-95XLT, BC-125AT.

You will want to avoid Uniden Scanners with Dynamic Memory Architecture because they are a pain in the neck to manually program without a computer.     You will also want to avoid GRE/Whistler Spectrum Sweeper and Radio Shack Signal Stalker II models because their nearby RF detection modes can not be programmed to run in the background.

The idea is to program in the common handheld frequencies into the scanner's memory channels to give you a 1-2 mile detection range on the common stuff, while having the SS-I/CC mode running in the background for “danger close” detection of any RF signal, regardless of frequency.

In the book, a list of common portable radio frequencies was given to assist readers in programming their scanners for detecting nearby portable radio communications.  The list was as follows:

VHF-Low Band
This range still sees use by old-school types using surplus gear and CB radios.  Specific frequency data is not as important as VHF-High and UHF since a lot of the gear, particularly the military surplus stuff, is frequency agile from 20-76 MHz.  This would be a good target band for SS-I/CC use, but be aware that most SS-I/CC scanners don't tune below 25 MHz. or above 54 MHz.
30.84
33.12
33.14
33.40
35.02
35.04 – Itinerant
43.04 – Itinerant
49.830 - Part 15
49.845 - Part 15
49.860 - Part 15
49.875 - Part 15
49.890 - Part 15

VHF-High & UHF Band
The VHF-High and UHF Business bands is where most portable radio activity occurs these days.  These are frequency bands of the license-free MURS and FRS radio services, of all the Ritron and Motorola "job site" portables available from Home Depot and Grainger.  There are cheap portables operating on FRS and GMRS repeater output frequencies available from places like Wal-Mart and Target.  These are the most active frequency ranges for portable radios.
This is also the spectrum of the VHF Marine Band between 156.25-157.425 MHz.  Despite being a violation of FCC regulations, many individuals and groups use VHF Marine portables on land, especially if they are more than 100 miles or so from a navigable waterway.
151.505 – Itinerant
151.5125
151.625 - Itinerant, Red Dot
151.655
151.685
151.700
151.715
151.745
151.775
151.805
151.820 – MURS
151.835
151.865
151.880 – MURS
151.895
151.925
151.940 – MURS
151.955 - Purple Dot
152.885
152.900
152.945
153.005
154.490
154.515
154.5275
154.540
154.5475
154.570 –MURS/Blue Dot
154.600 - MURS, Green Dot
158.400 – Itinerant
158.4075
169.445 - Wireless Mics
169.505 -Wireless Mics
170.245 - Wireless Mics
170.305 -Wireless Mics
171.045 - Wireless Mics
171.105 -Wireless Mics
171.845 - Wireless Mics
171.905 -Wireless Mics
UHF Band
451.1875
451.2375
451.2875
451.3375
451.4375
451.5375
451.6375
451.800 – Itinerant
452.3125
452.5375
452.4125
452.5125
452.7625
452.8625
456.1875
456.2375
456.2875
456.3375
456.4375
456.5375
456.6375
457.3125
457.4125
457.5125
457.525
457.5375
457.550
457.5125
457.5625
457.575
457.5875
457.600
457.6125
457.7625
457.8625
461.0375
461.0625
461.0875
461.1125
461.1375
461.1625
461.1875
461.2125
461.2375
461.2625
461.2875
461.3125
461.3375
461.3625
462.1875
462.4625
462.4875
462.5125
462.550 – GMRS
462.5625 – FRS1
462.575 - White Dot-GMRS
462.5875 – FRS2
462.600 – GMRS
462.6125 – FRS3
462.625 - Black Dot-GMRS
462.6375 – FRS4
462.650 – GMRS
462.6625 – FRS5
462.675 - Orange Dot-GMRS
462.6875 – FRS6
462.700 – GMRS
462.7125 – FRS7
462.725 – GMRS
462.7625
462.7875
462.8125
462.8375
462.8625
462.8875
462.9125
463.2625
464.325
464.4875
464.500 -Itinerant/Brown Dot
464.5125
464.5375
464.550 –Itinerant/Yellow Dot
464.5625
464.600
464.700
464.825
464.9125
466.0375
466.0625
466.0875
466.1125
466.1375
466.1625
466.1875
466.2125
466.2375
466.2625
466.2875
466.3125
466.3375
466.3625
467.1875
467.4625
467.4875
467.5125
467.5625 – FRS8
467.5875 – FRS9
467.6125 – FRS10
467.6375 – FRS11
467.6625 – FRS12
467.6875 – FRS13
467.7125 – FRS14
467.750
467.7625 - J Dot
467.775
467.7875
467.800
467.8125 - K Dot
467.825
467.8375
467.8625
467.850 - Silver Star
467.875 - Gold Star
467.8875
467.900 - Red Star
467.9125
467.925 - Blue Star
469.2625
469.4875
469.500
469.5125
469.5375
469.550
469.5625

Be aware that the increasing number of cheap Baofeng-type HTs in use by the technically ignorant has resulted in unlicensed activity showing up all across the VHF/UHF frequency coverage range of these radios.  It is those instances where SS-I/CC capability will come in handy.  There are a total of 169 frequencies in those lists.  They easily fit into the memory capacity of even a low-end SS-I/CC scanner such as the Radio Shack PRO-83.  Let's put things in perspective.  At 50-100 channels per second, most scanners will go through that number of channels in 2-4 seconds.  The SS-I/CC function searches through its entire spectrum coverage in about 5 seconds.  Note that information for later.

Interoperability

Interoperability is the ability for different agencies and jurisdictions to communicate with one another when the need arises.  There are specific frequencies assigned for interoperability purposes, and they are also known as “mutual-aid” channels.  These are useful to monitor because they are only active during a major incident, and are unencrypted.  Back in the day, you had a handful of channels for mutual-aid systems, and everyone was on them.  They were 39.46, 45.86, and 155.475 MHz. for police, and 45.88, 154.265, and 154.280 MHz. for fire.  At a fire scene, 33.50, 46.30, 154.010, and 154.070 MHz. saw common use.  Search and rescue was on 155.160 MHz. Ambulances used 155.340, 155.400, 462.950, and 462.975 MHz.  The federal government was usually on 163.100 MHz.  These frequencies are still being used today, but more frequencies have been added for such purposes.  Some states use other frequencies for interoperability/mutual-aid purposes.  For example, New York has their MRD channel on 155.370 MHz, Wyoming uses 154.875 MHz, and Connecticut has CSPERN on 858.2625 MHz. 

The Department of Homeland Security publishes a book titled National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG) that contains a list of all the current federal and non-federal interoperability/mutual-aid frequencies, emergency operations frequencies, and other useful electronic communications reference data.  It is available for download at the following url:  https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/National%20Interoperability%20Field%20Operations%20Guide%20v1.6.pdf.  You need to download a copy of this, print it out, and keep it at your operating position as a reference.

Encryption

Some public safety agencies have begun to implement encryption on a part or full-time basis.  The only thing you can do is challenge them on the political side.  Depending on the social and political situation of your community, this has a 50% chance of working.  I came up with that figure from actual field experience, by the way.  What needs to be done is convince either the chief law enforcement officer or his/her bosses that (constant) encryption is not in the best interests of the agency and community.  The last time the author noted a successful outcome with this approach, it was because the police chief became enamored with the idea that “old ladies with police scanners” could act as extra sets of eyes in the community when alerted to something via their listening activity.  The last time the author noted a lack of success with this approach, the city was so corrupt the mayor wound up going to prison.

From a technical standpoint, most radio encryption used in public safety and business/industrial radio communications is only of moderate difficulty to break, but federal law (ECPA) has left a dearth of domestic open-source resources and research material for the cryptoanalyst.  However, like most technology, the human is the weakest point in the security chain.  Crypto keys are often never changed once programmed into a system, and have been known to be bribed out of disgruntled employees and contractors.  Inadequately-trained (or maybe disgruntled)  dispatchers have made operator mistakes at the console and (unknowingly?)  shut down encryption on a radio system for a month before it was noticed by a local reporter who heard something that shouldn't have been said over the air, and wrote about it. 

During disaster situations, encryption is often turned off on a radio system to permit agencies responding via mutual-aid to communicate with the affected jurisdiction.  Interoperability and mutual-aid channels will generally not be encrypted for the same reason.  Also, the communications monitor should seek to discover which radio users are not running encryption in their area and monitor them for useful information.  Communications on the jungle telegraph frequencies will almost always be unencrypted, but savvy operators may talk in a manner that makes it difficult to impossible to figure out just exactly what they're saying.  Savvy monitors will combine their monitoring activities with other forms of information/intelligence gathering to help them see the big picture and figure things out.

3 comments:

  1. Great post as usual. As a newbie I was wondering if the ft-857d would be an ok purchase or the older ft-857 is specifically what you are talking about here?

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    Replies
    1. The older versions of the FT-857 are just as good. None of us usually buy gear new.

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