If you own an emergency scanner and are used to monitoring the ambulance service frequency, you may have noticed some strange sounds emanating from it starting last week.
No, it’s not an invasion from outer space or a clandestine government operation; the squeals and whistles are simply the result of the McCreary County Ambulance Service switching over to a new digital broadcast system.
A few years ago the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated a narrowing of certain analog broadcast frequencies to help eliminate overcrowding. While the move allowed more frequencies to be opened up, it did so at a price of lowering the clarity and range of many emergency responders radios.
The cost of digital systems is prohibitive for many small and underfunded departments, but the McCreary County EMS was able to procure a $10,000 grant to help them purchase units for all ambulances and several hand held units for use by the crews.
Willie Duncan, Assistant Director, said the increase in range and clarity in the signals from the radios has improved vastly since the switch over.
“The range is incredible,” Duncan said. “We have talked with our crews as far away as Somerset and Corbin; we don’t really know how far the range of these are yet.”
The change to digital was needed due to the difficulty of communicating with ambulance crews in some outlying areas of the county due to lack of signal strength, which could be potentially dangerous.
“We had no reception in some of the back areas,” Duncan said. “Now, it is like a cell phone. You know instantly if you have a signal or not. There is no static or garbled communication coming through.”
The new digital system works in concert with the enhanced 911 dispatching equipment installed last year, which was purchased using grant funds as well.
Duncan said the new radios also have the capability to switch back to analog mode so communication can be maintained between the department and other emergency responders, such as police and fire who don’t have digital radios.
The Ambulance Service donated all their old radios to the McCreary County Sheriff’s Office, which has no plans in the near future to upgrade to digital.
“It is a great technology, but we simply can not afford to upgrade our equipment at this time,” Sheriff Randy Waters said. “I am always looking for grants to help, but I feel any money we use will be for upgrading our safety equipment.”
The Ambulance Service is not the only local department making the change to digital.
Whitley City Fire Department Chief Tony Miller said he expected the department to switch to a digital system by the end of this week.
Miller said the upgrade is something the department has been considering for a while, and decided to make the move to improve their communication capabilities.
“While we were experimenting with some of the handhelds a while back, were we able to talk between Monticello and Whitley City, and we really couldn’t find a place in our coverage area where they didn’t work,” Miller said.
“We had one of the better coverage of all the emergency departments in the county, but we would still find places where it was not enough,” he added.
One benefit of the new radios for the firemen will also be Bluetooth capability, which could prove life-saving in an emergency situation.
“The manufacturer of the radio worked with the people who make our SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus) so the radio will link directly to the mask, allowing the fire fighter to better communicate,” Miller said.
The fire department’s radios will be compatible with 911’s equipment, and could potentially be used to provide real-time GPS tracking on units and personnel while in service.
Miller said the department would be spending about $35,000 to upgrade their radio system.
At least one other local emergency service, Pine Knot Fire Department, is considering the possibility of switching to digital, but no definitive plans have been made.
There are commercially available digital scanners that will allow you to monitor the digital broadcasts, but expect to pay more than $300 for most of them.
Also cellular phone apps are available, but require a third-party to monitor and stream the broadcasts of local services.
One free app, Scanner Radio Deluxe, does not currently have the McCreary County Ambulance Service listed as of yet.