Radio Jammers Hurting Maine Responders' Efforts

It's mainly affecting fire and rescue crews' transmissions


EDWARD D. MURPHY, The Portland Press Herald | | Friday, April 27, 2012

AUGUSTA, Maine -- Someone has been intermittently jamming radio transmissions of fire and rescue departments in southern Maine for the past few months, but on Sunday, Jason Cole said, the problem escalated sharply.

Cole, the assistant chief of Lebanon's rescue department, said he went on a medical call shortly before 10 a.m. Sunday. When he arrived at the house, it was clear the person was in worse shape that he had thought, so he got on the radio to call for another ambulance with advanced life support equipment and more emergency medical technicians.

"Every time I'd key the mic, they'd cover us," Cole said. Someone else was using a microphone on the same frequency, blocking Cole's transmissions.

Cole had to leave the house and walk to the end of the driveway where he could get reception for his cellphone and call in his request for help.

"They're getting more dangerous," Cole said, noting that the patient is still in the hospital. "This is far more serious than the prank that this person apparently thinks it is."

Federal law treats jamming public safety communications as more than a prank.

Jamming those transmissions -- as well as buying, selling or operating a jamming device -- violates federal law and can lead to fines up to $112,500 per act and prison, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which polices the airwaves.

The FCC has a zero tolerance policy in this area, said Michele Ellison, chief of the agency's enforcement bureau.

Cole said an FCC official told him that if someone dies when someone is intentionally jamming the department's radios, it could lead to manslaughter charges.

Cole said the problem is affecting the town's fire and rescue crews, as well as crews in North Berwick, Acton, Shapleigh and Limerick. In most cases, only the transmissions of certain individuals in those departments are being jammed.

Cole said the same departments had jammed transmissions in 2004 and he was also among those who seemed to be targeted then. In that case, he said, the transmissions being blocked weren't essential -- an EMT or firefighter reporting for work or a crew clearing the scene of an accident or fire.

That case was investigated by the FCC, which was preparing to set up monitoring equipment to pinpoint the source of the jamming when the problem stopped.

Cole said the FCC has been contacted again and it's reviewing the case file from 2004 as it begins to investigate the latest incidents. The FCC on Tuesday told dispatchers to read a statement saying that interfering with the transmissions is illegal whenever more jamming occurs.

Cole said another federal agency, which he declined to identify, is also investigating the jamming and working on a profile of the person interfering with the transmissions. He said most of the transmissions are being jammed at night or on weekends, suggesting the person or people involved have day jobs.

It's not that difficult to jam radio communications, said Jeff Kostis, a radio technician with Southern Maine Communications, which supplies and maintains the radio equipment used by many fire and rescue crews in York County.

He said people can buy radios that can be programmed to tune in particular frequencies and the frequencies of public service agencies can be found in online databases. Simply keying a microphone can override another transmission on that frequency, he said.

In 2004, the person jamming the transmissions sometimes whistled into the microphone, he said. This time there's silence.

Cole also noted that, unlike 2004, radios mounted in ambulances and fire trucks are being jammed and they are far more powerful than the handheld radios that fire and rescue personnel carry.

In the current case in York County, he said, someone appears to key the microphone as soon as a firefighter or EMT provides their radio identification code. The microphone is sometimes released and re-keyed repeatedly -- probably to see if the fire and rescue crew is still trying to transmit. The jamming is repeated until the crews stop trying to transmit.

"It's definitely deliberate," he said. "It's not a game. One of these days, it's going to cost someone's life."

Cole said he expects the FCC to act quickly in the case, noting that mobile monitoring devices can be deployed more quickly now than in 2004 and satellite technology can also play a role in locating the jammer.

He said he's most concerned about people who need medical help, like the man he assisted on Sunday, and firefighters who sometimes have to use their radios to communicate from inside burning buildings.

"The radio, that's their lifeline," he said.

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