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Military aircraft monitoring in the Boston area

1 Nov

You may not think of Boston, or New England in general, as a hotbed of Air Force and Navy activity, but this can actually be a fairly active area for listening to military airplanes. Both Maine and New Hampshire have very active Air National Guard refueling wings which can be heard almost daily. Fighter wings from Massachusetts and Vermont can be heard frequently, and I’ve heard the RI National Guard flying, too.
Besides these, the majority of the military aircraft deploying to, or returning from overseas pass over the region, and can often be heard communicating with air traffic control. Some can’t make the trip without gassing up, and you can hear mid-air refueling over Maine, New Hampshire, and Nova Scotia.

The first thing you’ll need, obviously, is a capable receiver. You’ll want one that receives the UHF military air band, 225-400 MHz. Not all scanners have this capability. I use a Uniden BCD396XT and an Icom IC-R20. An aftermarket antenna will probably also give you a signal boost. If your scanner doesn’t have the UHF air band, you can still hear military flights as they contact air traffic control. If your new, just be aware that most commercial airlines use callsigns; SPEEDBIRD213 isn’t some cool new stealth bomber, it’s just the British Airways flight into Logan.

Most of the milair transmissions happen very fast. Ever with a fast scanner, if you’re scanning a couple hundred channels at a time, you’ll probably miss a lot. I’d recommend either dedicating a scanner to listening to milair, or use the “priority” feature on your scanner to concentrate on, and frequently scan, the most likely channels.

The ScanNewEngland wiki is a great starting point to find military frequencies active in the area. You’ll also want to check out the mid-air refueling routes in the area, and program in those frequencies. Lastly, you’ll want to program in the UHF air traffic control frequencies for the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center and the Boston Consolidated TRACON. Military flights contact air traffic control on VHF and UHF, but UHF is only used by military flights. If you listen to VHF & UHF, you’ll hear every flight, military and civilian. You may also want to be proficient in quickly adding a frequency, as the pilot will often announce over the air which ATC frequency he’s using or going to use next.

A website run by the FAA will even tell you when there are going to be military exercises in the area, or when a certain refueling area will be active. 

For example purposes, here’s the transmissions I noted this morning. Blanks indicate where I missed a callsign.

11:18 PACK61 on 321.0

11:23 PACK61 & 62 (NH Air National Guard KC-135R’s) on 321.0MHz (PACK Control Com 2), climbing to 21,000, receivers will be in formation at 19,500, are running 15 minutes late. Receivers will also be linking up with TEAM21 (KC-10A from the 305th Air Mobility Wing). Will also be using 282.7MHz (AR-204 alternate) during refueling.

11:33 TEAM21 & KILLER1 (MA ANG F-15) on 338.2MHz (Boston ARTCC GDM36)

11:38 RAGE1 (Likely Navy F-18) on 338.2, dropping from 41,000

11:45  ___531 on 269.2 (Boston ARTCC PVD34)

11:46 ______ requests Uniform (UHF frequency assignment) on 307.9 (Boston ARTCC BOSOX47)

12:51 PACK61 on 321.0MHz, 15 minutes out from landing, Code 1, 35k fuel remaining.

13:34 PACK62 on 321.0MHz 15 minutes out, Code 2, two maintenance write ups for bad battery on one piece of equipment (IGY-2?), FLS no go on MMR2, 25k fuel remaining. Requests air stairs.

Good luck! I’m more than happy to answer any questions, or take any suggestions!

Uniden DMA scanner basics

12 Aug

When I got my first Uniden DMA scanner, a BC346XT, I was completely baffled by the way the memory is organized. My old scanners had banks of channels, say, 50 banks, with 50 available channels in each. If I programmed only ten channels into a bank, the other 40 channels couldn’t be re-allocated in another bank.  Uniden aimed to remedy this with a more flexible memory arrangement.
On a Uniden scanner, channels are nested into groups, which are nested into systems. So, on a larger conventional system that I listen to often, such as the city of Boston, I’ll have it programmed in as such:

System: Boston
Group 1: Police
Channel 1: BPD Channel 1
Channel 2: BPD Channel 2, etc…
Group 2: Fire
Channel 1: BFD Channel 1 , etc
Group 3: EMS
Channel 1: BEMS Channel 1, etc

Because there are only 100 System Quick Keys (more on that later), you’ll want to keep your total number of systems under 100. You can program in many more, having systems without Quick Keys, or two systems can share a Quick Key, but I prefer for every system to have it’s own Quick Key. So, for smaller systems that I don’t listen to as frequently, I arrange them a little differently:

System: Midddlesex County #1
Group 1: Acton
Channel 1: Acton PD
Channel 2: Acton FD
Channel 3: Acton EMS
Group 2: Arlington
Channel 1: Arlington PD
Channel 2: Arlington FD
Channel 3: Arlington EMS
etc, etc

Each system can have 10 Group Quick Keys, so I prefer to have no more than 10 groups per system. Because of this, Middlesex County takes up 4 or so systems on my scanners. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of room.
Once you map out how you are going to assign all of your systems, groups and channels, you can program them in. Hand programming is possible, but using the computer makes it exponentially faster. I recommend the program Freescan, as it’s just as good as any other program, and it’s free.
Systems and groups are turned on and off by their quick keys. Because of this, every system & group should be assigned it’s own quick key. As an example, on my scanner, Boston has a system quick key of 9. Simply pressing 9 on the keypad turns Boston on and off. While scanning Boston, I can turn the different groups (police/fire/ems) on and off with their group quick keys, by pressing “Func” and then the group number. I strongly recommend not using the Lockout (L/O) feature to turn channels on and off, as it can be time consuming, and can also lead to the glitchy “nothing to scan” error. The only channels I have permanently locked out are the ones that I definitely never want to listen to, for instance, BPD Channel 8, the listings and warrants channel. Pressing L/O once while on a channel you don’t want to hear is acceptable, as it will only lock it out for this session, and it will be unlocked when you turn the scanner off and back on again.
Trunking systems are similar, although they are broken down into “Sites”, then “Groups”, then “Channels (talkgroups)”. Individual sites can be assigned their own System Quick Key, so that as you travel between sites, you can quickly switch between them.

Boston C-Med System

8 Aug

I had been considering doing a blog post on C-Med for a while now, so when I received an email today with some questions about it, I figured now is as good a time as any.

At the most basic, C-Med is a statewide system used by ambulances to communicate patient information with the receiving hospital. The Massachusetts C-Med system is divided among five control centers throughout the state. Each system uses the same frequencies, but different PL tones. The frequencies and tones can be found here.

The basic system is made up of eight channels, each consisting of two frequencies. One frequency is used by the hospital, and the other, by the ambulance. The “hospital” side is repeated, so you will be able to hear that throughout the region, but the ambulance side can only be heard if you are within a few miles of the ambulance itself. The exception to this for Boston C-Med are Med-4 and Med-8, both of which have the ambulance side repeated on the hospital frequency. In other words, you can hear both sides of the traffic on the hospital frequency for Med-4 and Med-8. Medical helicopters also use the C-Med system, so you can often hear them on the ambulance side from a good distance away, due to their elevation.

Med-4 is the “hailing” channel, and is used to contact the control center and receive a channel assignment. A typical C-Med conversation runs something like this (for this example, we’ll say you are close enough to the ambulance to receive their side clearly):

Ambulance on 463.075: Boston C-Med, Boston C-Med, this is Fallon Paramedic 104 with an ALS entry note for Brigham & Women’s hospital, currently on 93 south of the city.

C-Med dispatcher on 463.075: Fallon, switch to Med-5 for Brigham & Women’s.

C-Med dispatcher on 463.100: Brigham & Women’s, this is C-Med, I have Fallon online with an entry note.

Hospital on 463.100: Go ahead, Fallon.

Ambulance on 468.100: Brigham & Women’s, this is Fallon Paramedic 104, currently 11 minutes out from your facility with a 44 year old woman involved in a head on MVA…(Medics will give relevant details, such as vital signs, medications administered, chief complaint, etc)…any questions?

Hospital on 463.100: No questions, see you in 10 minutes in room 3.

The channel will then be released back to C-Med control. All traffic is prioritized based on the nature of the call, and can range from something as small as a BLS entry note, to as serious as a trauma case.

If you want to program Boston C-Med into your scanner, you’ll only need to program the hospital frequencies  for Med-4 and Med-8. The other channels you will have to program the hospital and ambulance sides. Listen up to Med-4, and when you hear a call you are interested in, switch to the hospital side of the assigned channel, and once they acknowledge, try the ambulance side to see if you are in range.

The C-Med system also is used for medical control, for instance, if medics need a doctor’s permission to administer drugs, or to stop CPR on a non-viable patient.

Corrections or contributions from EMT’s, paramedics, or ER staff are more then welcome. Please post to the comments below (I’m sure I messed something up).

Upgrading Uniden Firmware

26 Mar

In an earlier posting about unit IDs, I mentioned that you needed the latest version of the scanner firmware in order to take advantage of that feature. Here’s the applicable websites with instructions for updating your firmware and enabling unit IDs:

BCD396XT: Firmware Upgrade

BC346XT: Firmware Upgrade

BCT15X: Firmware Upgrade

Add the unit IDs to your scanner the same way you would a new Talkgroup (to make the “i”, press the decimal key).

To view unit IDs on a P25 system, program it in as P25 single frequency trunk.

Good Luck!

Unit IDs

25 Mar

If you have a newer Uniden scanner, like the BC346XT or the BCD396XT and have upgraded to the latest firmware, you can enable the scanner to show Unit IDs on trunked and P25 systems. Here’s what that means:

Trunked systems are essentially computer controlled, and every time a user keys their radio, information is transmitted throughout the system, including an ID associated with that specific radio. Newer scanners can decode that information and display it. Knowing what radio is being used can be amazingly helpful while scanning. A few of the systems that you can see this on in the Boston area include the Massachusetts State Police, Cambridge PD/FD, and MassPort.

All of the marked and semi-marked MSP cruisers have an ID number on the license plate, and on the fender of the marked cruisers. If you’re listening to them on the scanner, this is the “call sign” that they are using, for example “2133 to Station A” would be the trooper operating this car:

For troops A, C, D and H (and maybe B), this number is also used as the ID (prefaced by a “5”) for the radio installed in the car itself. So, while I’m hearing that transmission, my scanner is also displaying UID:i52133. So even if I didn’t hear the beginning of the transmission, I can still see that and know which unit is calling. Each trooper also has an ID number, which is separate from his cruiser number. Sometimes you’ll hear them use their ID number on the radio when they are calling in to book a report, and they always give it at roll call. These numbers are used as the ID (prefaced by a “4”) for the portable radio (the “walkie talkie” that the trooper carries on his belt. If the trooper above, whose ID is 2588, gets out of his car and uses his portable, the display on my scanner shows UID:i42588. Since I don’t want to be looking up 2588 every time, I can program that ID into the scanner so it displays something simpler, like “Cruiser 2133”.
E Troop (Mass Pike) cruiser numbers are 2 or 3 digits followed by an “E”, for example, 120E. The ID numbers for the radios installed in the cruisers all start with a 3, and do not correlate to the cruiser number. For example, 120E is i35946. The portable radios follow the same convention the other troops use, though, so 120E is operated by trooper ID 1670, with portable radio ID i41670.
F Troop (Logan Airport) very rarely operates on the MSP trunked system, and are actually dispatched on the Massport system.
It can take a lot of listening to put together a thorough list of unit IDs for a single system. Besides the multiple radios used by each officer, you have the radios at the barracks, on air wing units, marine units, DCR Rangers, MEMA, etc. It can be very rewarding, though, especially if you like to know a little more detail about what is going on. 
If this is the sort of thing that you think might interest you, the Uniden BC346XT and BCT15X are good units that are priced towards the lower end of the spectrum. If you pick up one of these scanners, or if you have had one and just need help programming it, let me know and I’ll gladly put together a programming file for you.
As always, post questions, comments, and concerns and I’ll get back to you.

Squelch Tones, Simplified

22 Mar

Did you know that besides just the voice you hear, many radio frequencies carry additional information that you can’t even hear? The most common example of that is a squelch tone, more officially known as CTCSS, CDCSS, DPL or DCS. I’m not going to get into the technical details of how these work, but I’ll give a real world example of how this affects you when you’re scanning.

One of the more active Fire Buff radio networks in Eastern Massachusetts is Fire Radio Systems, which operates on 461.4000. If you have a scanner that doesn’t support CTCSS codes and you program in that frequency, you may also hear one of the other area organizations that share that same frequency, such as Bass Pro Shops in Foxboro, the New England Science Center in Worcester, or the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.

None of these groups want to hear the others’ radio traffic, so each group’s radios are programmed with a different squelch code. In the case of FRS, the radios are programmed with a code of 136.5. The same code is sent along with each transmission, and any transmissions that don’t have that code won’t be heard.

Most newer scanners also support these codes. In addition to screening out unwanted traffic when programmed in correctly, if left unprogrammed, they will also display the code that is being used, which can help you identify unknown frequencies or users. If your scanner doesn’t support this, it’s probably time for an upgrade. I use the Uniden BC346XT and the Uniden BCD396XT. The GRE PSR-310 is a popular choice, as well.

Post any questions in the comments below and I’ll try and answer them as best as I can.