Radios Switched for Township Police, Emergency Managers

LOWER POTTSGROVE PA – Emergency radio technicians helped the Lower Pottsgrove Police Department and the township’s emergency management staff prepare their mobile and portable radios for Montgomery County’s change Tuesday (Dec. 8, 2020) to a high-powered and encrypted communications system, according to Acting Police Chief Wil James and Emergency Management Coordinator Ray Lopez.

The Tuesday 7 a.m. switch represented the end of a 5-year process that moved the county from an antiquated and hardwired radio tower system that was “vulnerable to rodent chews, tears during utility and street excavations, and water infiltration into cables,” it said, to one that connects towers – and ultimately users – by wireless microwave transmitters and receivers.

Police departments, fire companies, and emergency medical service units countywide were required to buy new radios as well, at costs ranging from $3,700 to $6,000 per device, depending on type and features. Most took advantage of no-interest loans offered by the county for the purpose. The police department made the final payment on its loan this month, James told the township Board of Commissioners during its meeting Monday (Dec. 7).

Besides ridding itself of tower maintenance problems, the county indicates it gained more communication security, and the ability to give users more radio signal strength. Part of the efficiency comes from being able to separate users on specific channels. In the past, James said, Lower Pottsgrove radio calls competed with those of several other departments. With the new system, it and only one other department occupy a specific channel “zone.”

It also provides greater ability for first responders from different agencies, responding to the same emergency, to coordinate communications in what are known as “talk groups.” They’re roughly equivalent to a social media chat room.

However, by encrypting conversations and enabling only those with approved access to participate in talk groups, the new system has put radio hobbyists into a bind. Those who earlier spent time monitoring police and fire radios for the latest “emergency news,” straight from its sources, now find themselves hampered because their devices can’t decrypt the county signals.

Photo by Igor Vetushko via Deposit Photos, used under license