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Maybe You Can Outrun The Motorola: Digital Police Radios Cause Headaches

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Motorola MOTOTRBO radios

Emergency first response agencies are being forced to upgrade their radio systems to equipment capable of broadcasting in narroband, digital format. Motorola MOTOTRBO radios like these are commonly used. (Motorola photo courtesy frontier-radio.com.)

There’s an old saying about running from the police: “You might outrun the Motor, but you won’t outrun the Motorola.” But thanks to teething issues with digital police radios, maybe you can outrun the Motorola (or whatever radio brand your local constabulary uses.)

Most recently, police in Janesville, WI have lodged complaints that the federally-mandated transition to narrowband digital mobile radios has made it more difficult for their officers to communicate effectively.

A number of municipalities, making the switch to digital radio communications just ahead of the 2013 deadline, have experienced problems. Some have discovered that digital radio signal, much like digital HDTV over-the-air signal, is an all-or-nothing animal. You either get the clear reception for which digital is known, or you get nothing. Live in a county with lots of hills? Tall buildings? Those can stand between the dispatcher and the policeman calling for backup as the bank you work at is being robbed.

The problem isn’t new, as this 2008 piece in Urgent Communications outlined in detail. It’s just that a number of smaller municipal governments have delayed switching due to the cost and learning curve involved.  The Urgent Communications story detailed how some departments had been overcoming difficulties communicating between the field and dispatch by setting up a system that effectively transforms one of the mobile radios in a patrol car or fire truck into a dual-band digital signal repeater. Will a small police or fire department have the budget or know-how to performa similar work-around? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Meanwhile, those who like to monitor emergency responder frequencies have increasingly faced another difficulty of the digital switch: Encryption. Unlike analog radios, digital systems have the ability to fully encrypt transmissions so nobody without a special code can actually hear them– which kind of makes it harder to outrun the Motorola, I guess. You can’t dodge what you can’t hear coming.

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