Caught in a Jam: Intentional Interference

It happens every day. An EMS or fire crew is toned out for a medical call. A unit checks in service, and for the dispatcher it’s on to the next incident. That’s the way things are supposed to be. Except when the rig does not check in or respond, and the “first responder” on the radio “checking in” isn’t really a first responder.

That happened in Pennsylvania, where a woman waited about an hour for real help to arrive. Incidents such as the above, where frequencies are jammed or misinformation is passed as real, happen more often than might be imagined.

• In California, a woman was arrested after allegedly making 30 hours of calls on law enforcement and CAL FIRE frequencies, including death threats and a bomb scare.

• Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, crews were told not to respond to a pedestrian-versus-train accident. They ignored the bogus order and continued on to find an injured party.

• In Connecticut, an arrest was made after a man dispatched fire and EMS crews to phony incidents and hindered their responses to real incidents.

• Over a period of several months, a Maine community reported incidences of EMS information being interfered with and transmissions for a trailer fire being covered by an outside source.

• Four different Pennsylvania counties are reporting severe static; however, this is more of a continuous nature, and not targeting of specific incidents.

• In the wake of repeated jamming of a Long Island, NY, fire department’s radio calls, two state legislators called for stiffer penalties for those found interfering with emergency communications.

As you can see, jammers fall into several categories. One may shout obscenities and try to harass lawful users on a channel. One may key up a microphone, hum, whistle or do everything short of speaking. One may call in false alarms, often for locations that receive a larger assignment in order to further add to the chaos. But perhaps the most concerning are those who alter response by downgrading the priority of the call and even sending units back to quarters.

From documented cases, it is also clear that there is no universal description of a jammer or of his or her motives. One was described as a firefighter-wannabe; another was an amateur radio enthusiast. Some were kids just goofing around. Others seem to have no common thread with either public safety or electronic technology.

So where do these perpetrators get their radios? Some of them can be found on sites that many of us shop, such as eBay or Craigslist. Pawn stores, swap meets – the list goes on. In fact, some potentially come from normally reliable dealers.

Members of some departments carry their own portable radios so they can notify of their response and help coordinate staffing of apparatus. Out of fairness, there can be logical technical explanations for equipment-based accidental interference, but regardless of the source, the problem remains the same: lifesaving operations are dangerously disrupted.

Given the severity of the issue, what can be done to reduce a department’s exposure from hackers? The first and most reliable rests with your radios themselves. Of course, these solutions can come at considerable costs and may be out of reach of many departments. Trunked radio systems require appropriate hardware, software and a degree of sophistication to program. Radios can also be individually disabled.

While healthy discussion often ensues when discussing trunked radios and the fire service, and nothing is foolproof, many conventional type radios can be programmed right from the box, so the advantage here clearly goes to trunked. Scramblers are another option, but again, the cost to completely deploy the system makes it a tough sell in modern times.

A third option, where practical, is the addition of Automatic Number Identification (ANI) for all radios. Each radio is issued a unique identifier that corresponds to the department and/or user. Each time a radio keys up, a time and date log is automatically created. If a call comes from a unit with a questionable – or no – ID, then special policies should kick into place. The addition of a Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) – a set of sub-audible tones that determine whether disparate units on the same channel can hear each other – might help, but if someone programming the errant radio knows the set of tones, then nothing is really accomplished.

For agencies that let members carry – or personally purchase – their own handheld devices, it is well to remember that no one should be permitted to “ad hoc” buy a radio capable of operating on public safety channels. All such purchases are made under the authority and control of the department’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license. Therefore, clear policies and procedures for the acquisition and use of any and all department sanctioned units must be established and enforced.

When all else fails, and your department falls victim, there are still steps to be taken. First, contact local law enforcement and file a formal complaint. Provide as much detail as possible about the events. Does it impact one department or many? Are there specific geographic areas, times of day or other commonalities among the incidents?

Describe the actions as clearly as possible. Are the calls obscene, random keying over calls or attempts to masquerade as an official? Does the caller sound to be a male, female or juvenile, and appear to be calm, angry or intoxicated? Agencies may also call the FCC’s 24-hour operations center at 202-418-1122 for more information.

Firefighting is dangerous enough, without getting caught in yet another jam.