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CARE AND FEEDING OF LAW ENFORCEMENT ELECTRONICS

Tips on use and maintenance for best performance and longest life

Part One of Two

Hello again. Enjoying the heat? It's in the high nineties here, in both temperature and humidity, and I'm just regretting not having worn my overcoat to work this morning...

 I seem to recall from years past that the incidence of violent crimes is  higher when the weather is miserably hot. What has been your experience? Bar  fights, domestics, etc.? My brother is convinced that climate tampering is a  reality and that it's all a commie plot. And, for some reason I tend to listen to a lot of hillbilly music this time of year. Why?

 Over the past several months there has been a marked increase in satanic and  cult activity around the country, especially in the east coast area. Reports  of child abuse, primarily sexual, are passing through here practically every  day. Day care centers are heavily involved. Initially our contribution was the electronic surveillance  aspects, but due to our operation serving numerous agencies we have become a sort of clearing house for information of all types relating  to occult activities. We have found that a number of apparently unrelated investigations are in fact overlapping. We are maintaining a  list of resources available to investigators, both public and private,  relating to the situation. Additionally, we have access to a person  with a law enforcement background who is very knowledgeable about the occult and who is willing, with certain reservations, to consult with  those responsible for investigating the matter. Please call or write  our offices if you have anything to contribute or need information. Due  to the volume of calls received, we can not afford to return messages long distance. Keep trying until you catch me personally in the office,  or indicate in my box on the voice mail whether you will accept collect return calls.

 Anyway, let's get into care and feeding. This series will run at least  two parts, depending on how wordy I get, magazine space available, and  feedback from you all. We'll discuss tips on radio equipment, night  vision devices, audio surveillance, optics, batteries, a bit on vehicle trackers, maybe some CCTV, and anything else electronics related in  which your feedback indicates an interest. As always, the purpose of  these articles are to help the technically oriented investigator get  the best performance from his equipment. This stuff's not cheap,  although price is not necessarily an indication of quality. By proper  selection, operation and maintenance, you and your agency can realize the maximum utility from your investment.

 A generally good idea is to seek out equipment which is as standard as  possible, and serviced by several different firms. A large portion of electronic surveillance equipment out there is, in many cases, manufactured and sold by only one firm. When you need replacement parts  (and you will), service, accessories, etc., you are at the mercy of that one vendor. Once you own their equipment, that's it. The  honeymoon's over. If their equipment uses special batteries, custom cables, antennas, adapters, consumable supplies or whatever, you must  pay whatever that manufacturer wants. Try to deal with vendors who must  remain competitive in order to stay in business.

 Deal with a monopoly  and you're at their mercy. These caveats hold true for audio  surveillance, night vision, portable and mobile radio equipment, and much more. Don't be deceived, either, by manufacturers who have  hundreds of service centers. The manufacturers set materials and labor  rates at all of them. Seek out independent service facilities. Ask for, and check references. There are alternatives to dealing with the monopoly firms in the industry. The best deals, all the way around, may  be from some of the smaller firms who can't afford huge marketing efforts and salesmen to call on every department in the nation. I  suspect the larger firms spend more on marketing and hype than they do  on product development, production and customer service. Smaller firms  also tend not to have snotty attitudes. Agencies currently spending grant money should take special note.

 COMMUNICATIONS EQUIPMENT
Most radio users spend more than they need to on communications. Due to  the nature of our work, the radios our company uses couldn't see more severe service, yet it's very unusual for us to have to repair one of  our own pieces. My personal handheld (an ICOM U16) and its two  batteries are used virtually every day, and charged every night. The batteries are approaching 3 years old and haven't even begun to get  tired. I just pulled another old kickaround radio, not an ICOM, out of  its charger (underneath the jackalope) and popped the back. The battery is dated 1982. Until we switched to ICOM, that old junker accompanied me on every job and has probably seen service in half the states and several countries. The radio is never, ever, turned off and probably has 20,000 hours on it. I did fix it once (cracked fuse, 10 minutes) when it was a baby, after a three week cross country motorcycle trip.

 Contrast our experiences to that of many of our clients who keep  sending the same radios in for service over and over. We maintain maintenance histories on the computer of all equipment we service. Certain of our clients apparently prefer to keep paying for repairs  rather than educate the users on proper care and operation. What can you do to cut your downtime and expenses? Lots. Batteries are a major source of problems. Do more research when you buy batteries  other than finding the cheapest price. Lowest price almost always gets  you lowest quality (with batteries), although the converse is definitely not true. Aftermarket batteries (manufactured by someone  other than the cats who made the radio) range from garbage to excellent. Many manufacturers, by the way, put their labels on whatever  battery meets their approximate specs and is offered to them the cheapest. Frequently you can buy the exact same battery the  manufacturer sells, for a fraction of the price, from the original source. It won't have the manufacturers logo on it, though. This is  fine unless, of course, you are a yuppy who buys only name brand jeans, root beer and toilet paper. The manufacturer may tell you they won't guarantee the radio if you don't use their battery. Well, the battery  they supply with the radio when it is new should last throughout the warranty period. After that, you're the customer. Don't let yourself be  dictated to. Just get the battery manufacturer's guarantee that the  battery they offer you meets manufacturer's specs. Call us if you want  some aftermarket sources for batteries.

 A news team once asked an astronaut, sitting strapped atop his rocket minutes before it went boom, what thoughts were running through his  mind at that historic moment. He said, "Well, I'm thinking that  everything that makes this baby go was supplied by the lowest bidder...".

 Back to batteries. A lot has been said about rechargeable (nickel cadmium, or nicad) batteries. Nicad batteries, although somewhat expensive, are about the only battery practical for handheld radios.  They offer a high power to weight ratio, which means that the batteries last a long time without being excessively heavy or humongously large.  The memory effect is one factor that has received a lot of press. Briefly, memory is a condition where a nicad eventually adapts to the type of service expected of it. This means that if you have a battery  of a given capacity (the milliamp hour, or mAh rating) but don't force  the battery to deliver all that it's capable of, after a while the  battery will lose its ability to deliver all the life originally  designed into it. Say you have a battery that will last 8 hours under normal usage. If you only use it for 2 hours then drop it in the charger to top it off, and do that repeatedly, eventually the battery  will only deliver two hours of service. Most quality nicads do not  suffer from memory much anymore although several manufacturers still  refer to the condition.

 I believe it is a good idea to make nicads work for a living. It is best to use them until they are pretty much drained, then charge them  fully. By the way, nicads have a funny discharge curve. Unlike throwaway batteries where, in a flashlight for example, the light gets dimmer and dimmer until you replace them, nicads will go along fine, at  essentially full voltage, until they're finished. Once they are, that's it. Whatever the battery is powering will die all of a sudden. What this means to you is that there's no easy way to know if a nicad battery is 90% charged or 10%. It also means that you don't know a nicad needs charging until it stops working. Different equipment acts  in different ways when the battery is croaked. Some handheld radios  will just not transmit, some will sound funny on receive, some will cut in and out when you talk or turn the receive volume up.

 The point of this is that you don't know when a nicad is near dead  until it happens. At the first sign of problems, it is very important to shut down the equipment and charge the battery or swap in a new one.  To use the battery after its voltage starts to drop is to risk ruining  it beyond repair. Once a battery is discharged, try to recharge it fully as soon as possible. A nicad will last much longer if it is not  left discharged. When charging a nicad, try to avoid very cold temperatures. A nicad will start to heat up when it nears full charge. Most decent battery chargers measure the heat of the battery and cut  back from full charge rate to trickle when the battery gets warm. If it is very cold, like charging a Streamlight off your cigarette lighter in  the dead of winter, the battery won't heat up and may overcharge and be damaged.

 I'm starting to get wordy so just remember this: use a nicad battery  until it shows some sign of being discharged. Then charge it fully as soon as possible. Memory effects are not the problem they used to be, but are still a factor. Rotate your batteries so all see occasional  use. If you don't use a particular battery often, drain it periodically  through normal use - maybe 3 or 4 times a year will be enough to avoid  memory. To do so more often will hurt the battery more than it helps. Don't store a battery unless it is fully charged and even then run it  through the charger every few months or so.

 Nicads lose about 10% of their charge a month in storage. Don't count on a battery to deliver full service if it's been sitting in your glove  compartment for several months.

 If you have a battery that doesn't seem up to snuff, any possible memory it has developed may be able to be reversed. Drain the battery  until it's dead, then charge it fully. Do that several times and you  probably will notice the battery come up more and more each time until  it's near full capacity. Of course, if the battery is shot there's  nothing you can do, but a vast majority of batteries can be rejuvenated if they haven't been abused too much.

 It is possible to extend the life of nicad batteries by using the full  capacity originally designed into them. Several firms, in fact, sell  battery "analyzers" or "exercisers", whose job it is to drain a battery  and charge it up, and do that through several cycles. Fancy versions  have a microcomputer that tracks battery performance and indicates its  condition on a digital readout. We recommend a battery analyzer to any  operation having more than 30 or 40 batteries in service. The analyzers  must be ordered with the appropriate "personality module" for the exact battery to be treated. Note that an analyzer usually has several slots,  and each can be set up for a different type of battery. Excellent investment, especially with many radio nicads costing from $50 to $90. It should be possible to extend battery life from 30% to 50% by  exercising them, keeping them charged, and not draining them down too deep. Work the numbers out yourself and call us if you have any  questions.

 Incidentally, disposable (nonrechargeable) batteries or packs are available for many radios. They are expensive, but will run the radio 5  to 10 times longer than a rechargeable. Mercury or alkaline throwaways are intended for certain critical operations where a user won't see a  charger for days at a time. I'm not recommending them, but be aware  that they exist.

 Please don't use the rubber duck on your portable as a handle. The  antenna connectors on the radios will last till the second coming if  they are not abused, but they may go intermittent if excessive stress is put on the connections. And if the antenna connection develops a  problem, not only may the radio fail you at a critical time but the  transmitter power amplifier transistors may be damaged. Neither is  desirable. Every so often on a job I'll ask an officer to let me see  his portable. It's not unusual for the officer to grab the antenna as the handle to pull the radio out of its holster. I cringe, especially  if we maintain the radios. Train your people to take care of their  portable radios as they would their weapons (and that's probably not a  good comparison...). Most of us non Dirty Harry types use our radios  more often than we use our weapons.

 Speaking of holsters, especially for you private operations, they're a  good investment. Virtually any radio not in a holster will be damaged if it is dropped. In a holster, probably not. And, with a proper holster (as opposed to a belt clip) there's less chance of the radio eating dirt. A swivel holster is a real nice thing. You remove the entire radio, holster and all, from your belt by turning the radio completely upside down and lifting it up. The radio is free to swivel back and forth on your belt, letting it tilt up out of the way when you  sit down in your unit. Every radio I know of is available either with a swivel holster or a swivel mounted directly on the back of the radio.  Try it, you'll like it.

 Radio holsters are available with various types of flaps. Some are the  T flap (most popular), and the full flap (best if you work a lot in the rain). Use some sort of a flap to keep the radio where it belongs. If you have a swivel holster the radio always stays in the holster and you  take the whole thing off your belt.

 A remote speaker mike is a convenience. It lets you operate the radio from the mike clipped to your collar or wherever, without removing the radio from your belt. They work OK if your radio system has good coverage. With the antenna and radio on your belt, your body soaks up a  significant amount of signal and sometimes you have to get the antenna away from your body and up high to get out well enough to be heard. Try  one before you buy a bunch for your department. I love 'em.  When you're talking at the radio, you'll be heard best if you speak across the mike rather than into it. When you talk into a mike, its  element must absorb all the power of your voice. In a human voice the intelligence is in the high frequencies, and the power in the low. The  mike will pick up the highs and ignore most of the lows if you talk across it. Also the humidity in your breath won't do the microphone any good in the long run. Maybe 45 degrees is OK although 90 degrees sounds  best to my ear. Experiment - it's free. Various radios may react differently. If you can, turn your back to the wind when you're  transmitting. Wind noise you don't hear yourself will sometimes be  picked up by the radio as loud as your voice. Listen to how guys at the other end sound.

 Don't take a throat culture on the mike. Properly designed radios will  deviate fully when you speak at a normal level a few inches from the  mike. Speaking closer will muffle your transmitted voice as well as  pick up an excess of sibilance (the "s" sounds on words, like in  "signal" or "sam"). Excess sibilance will make any words with "s'es" in  them sound hissy. You hear it a lot on FM broadcast stations for some reason. Also, do not shout at the radio. Human nature is to holler at  the radio or telephone, especially if conditions are bad. The radios  are designed to give you best audio quality when you're speaking normally. In the heat of battle, or if you're frantic, screaming will  only degrade your signal. Train yourself to stay calm, cool and  collected on the radio at all times. That's the mark of a professional. It's OK to enunciate clearly or switch to phonetics if conditions are bad, but screaming won't help. If people listening to you claim your transmit audio is low, turn the radio in for service. Usually a simple  adjustment will fix the problem.

 If your radio picks up an excess of background noise, ask the radio shop if the "mike gain" can be dropped a bit. This will not reduce your  voice level, but will determine how far away the microphone will listen. Generally you don't want a lot of mike gain, as your radio will  then pick up your siren, foul language from the people you serve, or  your partners' graphic assessment of how management is handling the situation.

 Back to the portable on your belt for a minute. If you're on UHF, you might have a skinny antenna about 6 inches long, or you might have a fat stubby antenna about 2 1/2 inches. The longer antennas work better,  but they tend to be bent and eventually damaged by our fat guts. If you carry the radio on your belt a lot, try a stubby duck. In addition to  being short enough so it doesn't get bent by being up against your  blubbery ribs, the short length also resists being used as a handle.  Stubby ducks are available for any UHF radio if you ask around. If  you're on VHF, with a fat antenna about 6 inches long, you're out of luck. And if you're on low band, with an 18 inch antenna, it will hit  you in the ear when the radio's on your belt. Sorry.

 Some guys, especially in the private sector, try to make a handheld double as a mobile radio by attaching a mag mount antenna, a cigarette lighter power cord and maybe a speaker mike. You're not being clever.  You're being cheap. Handheld radios are designed to work magnificently  with the amount of signal picked up by the relatively small rubber antenna. When you cram a lot of signal in from an external antenna,  you're likely to experience overload, intermod and other nasty things happening to the receiver. There just isn't enough room in the handheld  to put the same filtering that is in the mobiles. You'll probably blame the radio when it hears crap from other channels nearby in frequency.  Also, you can tell the guys transmitting on a handheld from the car. Their signals are frequently weak and full of wind noise. The whole  thing is a bad idea. You'll eventually wear out the antenna and power connectors on the radio from the constant plugging and unplugging them.  If you genuinely need a mobile, buy a mobile. The same holds true for convertacoms ("jerk and runs") although to a lesser degree as the  convertacom consoles usually have some sort of filtering and amplifying  in them to supplement that of the handhelds. We build mobiles for a reason. One legitimate exception is certain jurisdictions, like  Baltimore City, where the repeater network is so fantastic that a handheld, on its own antenna, is completely adequate to provide good  signals from a radio inside the car.

 In many jurisdictions, repeaters are balanced for a signal from a mobile. Realize that just because you can hear the repeater fine from a  handheld in the car, it can't necessarily hear you.

 Make sure that any external antenna you use is the proper one for the radio. All antennas are not the same. Even if you put a VHF antenna on a VHF radio, the antenna must still be tuned to the particular frequency using appropriate equipment. I've seen officers hook the CB  antenna on the car to their police handheld. This is totally ignorant.  If the radio works at all, it's likely to be damaged sooner or later  from operating into a mismatched antenna. The same holds true for  scanner antennas. Scanner antennas are not designed to be transmitted into, and will probably damage the transmitter if you try. The proper  antenna is not prohibitively expensive. Do it right. Also, choose trunk lip or permanent mount antennas over magnetic mount wherever possible.  They work better. And don't crush the coax. The characteristics of coax are dependent on its physical characteristics. Roll the window up on it one time and it's shot. And make sure if you solder a connector on you do the job properly, with good solder and enough heat. Don't melt the insulator on the coax though or you'll mess it up just as if it was  crushed.

 Various antennas are available for mobile and base use. The smallest  and cheapest is the 1/4 wave antenna. This will be about 18 inches or so long for VHF, and about 6 inches for UHF. Next best, on VHF, is the  5/8 wave, or for UHF, the collinear. A collinear on UHF is the antenna  with the bump halfway up its length. Mount whatever antenna you select  as high on the vehicle as possible, keeping in mind clearance in  underground parking lots, low tree branches, etc. Sometimes you're better off with a smaller antenna mounted on top of your light bar than  you would be with a larger antenna mounted on the trunk or fender. And the closer the antenna is to the center of the car, the less directional it will be. An antenna mounted on the left fender will be  directional off towards 2 O'Clock. In the center of the roof the  pattern is pretty much circular. This information might be helpful if you're stationary in a weak coverage area. Merely by parking your unit pointing in a different direction might take you from a marginal signal  to a strong one.

 Please take some care with the cord and microphone on your mobile radio. Don't pull on it beyond its limits if you can help it. Don't  hang it over the rear view mirror. Try to keep it in its hanger if you  can. Most modern radios that use "tone" count on the mike being grounded through the hanger to turn on the receive tone. If you're  supposed to have tone but you still hear other users on the channel,  try touching the hangup button on the back of the mike to something grounded in the vehicle. If this shuts up the other user then make a point of keeping the mike hung where it belongs when you're not brushing your teeth with it. And of course, the mike hanger must either  be screwed down to real metal or have a wire run from under a mounting  screw to ground. I've seen radios come through from allegedly professional radio shops where the mike clip was screwed to plastic and everybody wondered why the tone didn't work. Although, I agree that  finding metal in a car anymore is a real challenge.

 Rotating back around to portables again - when you're talking on them,  keep the radio vertical and as high as possible. If you read my piece last year on radio communications, you'll understand the importance of  polarization. Don't hold the radio at an angle with the antenna pointing over your shoulder. That can kill half your signal. If the  radio's on your belt and the dispatcher complains you're 10-1, take it  off your belt and stick it up in the air as far as your arm will reach.  This is assuming, of course, that you're using a speaker mike. That, by the way, points out another advantage of a speaker mike - it lets you  poke the radio way up in the air when you're talking so it gets out better.

 If your portable is one of the new Captain Whizzo radios with a digital readout, don't let the sun shine on the readouts for long periods of time. If you leave the radio on the car seat, turn it face down. Excessive exposure to the sun will eventually turn the readouts  completely black, beyond repair.

 Virtually every competitive bid we get in for portable radios specify 5 watts of transmit power. A more powerful radio is not a better radio.  You must consider battery life as well as radio and battery size. It's very difficult to tell the difference in performance between a 3 watt  and a 5 watt radio although the 5 watt radio will use batteries twice as fast. Most radios nowadays determine the power by which battery is  attached. Ask for a demo radio and try several different batteries.  I'll bet the lower powered battery will be satisfactory, and you'll be  happier with twice the battery life. When we get a request from an  individual officer for a 5 watt radio, we send both a 3 watt and a 5  watt battery with the radio. We then let the officer pay for whichever  battery he chooses and return the other. We rarely sell a 5 watt  battery to someone who's had a chance to try both. The prices are the same for either, and we really don't care which you choose. We don't want complaints, however, from those who insist on a 5 watt battery and  then bitch that it only lasts them 6 or 8 hours.

 Estimates of battery life are rated on a duty cycle that takes into account transmitting time, receiving time and standby time. Up till  recently, a 10% - 10% - 80% duty cycle was the standard of comparison. This meant 10% transmit, 10% receive and 80% standby. A battery would  be spec'ed to last an 8 hour shift at 10-10-80. With the advent of  synthesized radios, especially some of the newer or more inexpensive  ones, current drain is higher than it used to be. And to meet all the  high power specs the beancounters insist on, a battery must be large in order to meet 8 hours at 10-10-80. So what did the industry do? Rather  than be honest about whether high power is really necessary, they downrated the battery spec from 10-10-80 to 5-5-90. This lets them claim high power out of a reasonably sized battery and still try to  make us believe the battery will last a whole shift. The 5-5-90 duty cycle is completely unrealistic for most agencies. A realistic spec in a busy department might be 10-60-30 (transmit, receive, standby). And,  if your radio scans several busy channels it may never be in standby. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If you are on a busy system and  have a five watt or more portable, your battery almost certainly will not last an entire 8 hour shift. This is such a problem that we have a  special battery manufactured for the ICOMS we sell that is twice the  capacity of the factory battery. Don't believe sales literature or a  salesman. Try before you buy, and make sure the battery you evaluate is the one that will be bid on a competitive procurement. Some operations genuinely need as much power as they can get from their portables. But their radios won't be cute and tiny. If you have trouble with portable coverage, consider improving the system or installing vehicular  repeaters.

 A quick tip - many of us are using the Captain Whizzo radios with the capability to scan lots of channels. There are radios out that operate up to 320 channels, which is ignorant in my opinion, although most multi channel radios have maybe 16 positions. If you have a primary  channel and don't need all the slots in your radio, you can program  your primary channel in more than one slot so it gets scanned more  often. For example, if channel 1 is your main dispatch, and you have a  16 channel radio with spare positions, you can program it to scan as  follows: 1-2-3-1-4-5-6-1-7-8-9-1-10-11-12. Get the picture? Your  priority channel will be scanned 4 times as often as any other. Also, if you have a repeater channel with a talkaround on the repeater output, don't put the talkaround channel in the scan sequence. Otherwise if you get a call on the repeater your radio might stop scanning on the talkaround channel, and when you answer there you won't  be heard.

 Well, I'm about talked out for now. In the next issue we'll cover care  and feeding of night vision and other optics, maybe some surveillance transmitters and anything else you'd like to hear. Please give either  me or the magazine some feedback so we have some idea of whether these  articles are useful. Your inputs determine the content of these  articles. Anyone who's in the Baltimore area is welcome to give a call  and maybe we can "do lunch"! Please call if you have any questions or  comments on these articles or if we can assist you in any way. Many agencies are now spending grant money and need to be sure they are  getting the biggest bang for the buck.

 If any of you out there are Blue Knights, how about doing a piece on  yourselves? I used to ride with Maryland 1 years ago, and never met a finer group of guys and gals in my career.

A final question, for those in the inner sanctum: Are you a turtle?

 Let me know.

 Copyright (C) Steve Uhrig, SWS Security, August 1988

 

Contents

Hello again.

Enjoying the heat? It's in the high nineties here, in both temperature and humidity, and I'm just regretting not having worn my overcoat to work this morning...

 I seem to recall from years past that the incidence of violent crimes is  higher when the weather is miserably hot. What  has been your experience? Bar fights, domestics, etc.? My brother is convinced that climate tampering is a reality and that it's all a commie plot. And, for some reason I tend to listen to a lot of hillbilly music this time of year. Why?

 Over the past several months there has been a marked increase in satanic and  cult activity around the country, especially in the east coast area. Reports of child abuse, primarily sexual, are passing through here practically every day.  Day care centers are heavily involved. Initially our contribution was the electronic surveillance aspects, but due to our  operation serving numerous agencies we have become a sort of clearing house for information of all types relating to  occult activities. We have found that a number of apparently  unrelated investigations are in fact overlapping. We are maintaining a  list of resources available to investigators, both public and private,  relating to the situation. Additionally, we have access to a person with a law enforcement background who is very knowledgeable about the  occult and who is willing, with certain reservations, to consult with those responsible for investigating the matter. Please call or write our offices if you have anything to contribute or need information. Due to the volume of calls received, we can not afford to  return messages long distance. Keep trying until you catch me personally in the office, or indicate in my box on the voice mail whether you will accept collect return calls.

 Anyway, let's get into care and feeding. This series will run at least  two parts, depending on how wordy I get, magazine space available, and feedback from you all. We'll discuss tips on radio equipment, night vision devices, audio  surveillance, optics, batteries, a bit on vehicle trackers, maybe some CCTV, and anything else electronics related in  which your feedback indicates an interest. As always, the purpose of these articles are to help the technically oriented  investigator get  the best performance from his equipment. This stuff's not cheap,  although price is not necessarily an indication of quality. By proper selection, operation and maintenance, you and your agency can realize the maximum  utility from your investment.

 A generally good idea is to seek out equipment which is as standard as  possible, and serviced by several different firms.  A large portion of  electronic surveillance equipment out there is, in many cases, manufactured and sold by only one  firm. When you need replacement parts (and you will), service, accessories, etc., you are at the mercy of  that one  vendor. Once you own their equipment, that's it. The  honeymoon's over. If their equipment uses special batteries, custom cables, antennas, adapters, consumable supplies or whatever, you must pay whatever that manufacturer wants. Try to deal with vendors who must  remain competitive in order to stay in business.

 Deal with a monopoly  and you're at their mercy. These caveats hold true for audio  surveillance, night vision, portable  and mobile radio equipment, and much more. Don't be deceived, either, by manufacturers who have hundreds of service  centers. The manufacturers set materials and labor rates at all of them. Seek out independent service facilities. Ask for,  and check references. There are alternatives to dealing with the monopoly firms in the industry. The best deals, all the way around, may  be from some of the smaller firms who can't afford huge marketing efforts and salesmen to call on every department in the nation. I suspect the larger firms spend more on marketing and hype than they do  on product  development, production and customer service. Smaller firms  also tend not to have snotty attitudes. Agencies currently  spending  grant money should take special note.

 COMMUNICATIONS EQUIPMENT

  Most radio users spend more than they need to on communications. Due to  the nature of our work, the radios our  company uses couldn't see more severe service, yet it's very unusual for us to have to repair one of our own pieces. My personal handheld (an ICOM U16) and its two batteries are used virtually every day, and charged every night. The   batteries are approaching 3 years old and haven't even begun to get tired. I just pulled another old kickaround radio, not an ICOM, out of its charger (underneath the jackalope) and popped the back. The battery  is dated 1982. Until we switched to ICOM, that old junker accompanied me on every job and has probably seen service in half the states and several countries. The radio is never, ever, turned off and probably has 20,000 hours on it. I did fix it once (cracked fuse,  10 minutes) when it was a baby, after a three week cross country motorcycle trip.

 Contrast our experiences to that of many of our clients who keep  sending the same radios in for service over and over. We maintain  maintenance histories on the computer of all equipment we service. Certain of our clients apparently  prefer to keep paying for repairs rather than educate the users on proper care and operation.  What can you do to cut  your downtime and expenses? Lots. Batteries are a major source of problems. Do more research when you buy  batteries other than finding the cheapest price. Lowest price almost always gets you lowest quality (with batteries), although the converse is definitely not true. Aftermarket batteries (manufactured by someone other than the cats who  made the radio) range from garbage to excellent. Many manufacturers, by the way, put their labels on whatever battery meets their approximate specs and is offered to them the cheapest. Frequently you can buy the exact same battery the manufacturer sells, for a fraction of the price, from the original source. It won't have the manufacturers logo on it, though. This is  fine unless, of course, you are a yuppie who buys only name brand jeans, root beer and toilet paper. The manufacturer may tell you they won't guarantee the radio if you don't use their battery. Well, the battery they supply with  the radio when it is new should last throughout the warranty period. After that, you're the customer. Don't let yourself be dictated to. Just get the battery manufacturer's guarantee that the  battery they offer you meets manufacturer's specs.  Call us if you want some aftermarket sources for batteries.

 A news team once asked an astronaut, sitting strapped atop his rocket minutes before it went boom, what thoughts were running through his mind at that historic moment. He said, "Well, I'm thinking that  everything that makes this baby go  was supplied by the lowest bidder...".

 Back to batteries. A lot has been said about rechargeable (nickel cadmium, or nicad) batteries. Nicad batteries, although somewhat expensive, are about the only battery practical for handheld radios. They offer a high power to weight ratio, which means that the batteries last a long time without being excessively heavy or humongously large. The memory  effect is one factor that has received a lot of press.  Briefly, memory is a condition where a nicad eventually adapts to the  type of service expected of it. This means that if you have a battery of a given capacity (the milliamp hour, or mAh rating)  but don't force the battery to deliver all that it's capable of, after a while the battery will lose its ability to deliver all the

  life originally designed into it. Say you have a battery that will last 8 hours under  normal usage. If you only use it for 2  hours then drop it in the charger to top it off, and do that repeatedly, eventually the battery will only deliver two hours of service. Most quality nicads do not  suffer from memory much anymore although several manufacturers still refer to the  condition.

 I believe it is a good idea to make nicads work for a living. It is best to use them until they are pretty much drained, then charge them fully. By the way, nicads have a funny discharge curve. Unlike throwaway batteries where, in a flashlight for example, the light gets dimmer and dimmer until you replace them, nicads will go along fine, at essentially full voltage,  until they're finished. Once they are, that's it. Whatever the battery is powering will die all of a sudden. What this means to you is that there's no easy way to know if a nicad battery is 90% charged or 10%. It also means that you don't know a  nicad needs charging until it stops working. Different equipment acts in different ways when the battery is croaked.  Some handheld radios will just not transmit, some will sound funny on receive, some will cut  in and out when you talk or turn the receive volume up.

 The point of this is that you don't know when a nicad is near dead  until it happens. At the first sign of problems, it is  very important to shut down the equipment and charge the battery or swap in a new one.  To use the battery after its  voltage starts to drop is to risk ruining it beyond repair. Once a battery is discharged, try to recharge it  fully as soon as  possible. A nicad will last much longer if it is not  left discharged. When charging a nicad, try to avoid very cold  temperatures. A nicad will start to heat up when it nears full charge. Most decent battery chargers measure the heat of the battery and cut back from full charge rate to trickle when the battery gets warm. If it  is very cold, like charging a  Streamlight off your cigarette lighter in the dead of winter, the battery won't heat up and may overcharge and be   damaged.

 I'm starting to get wordy so just remember this: use a nicad battery  until it shows some sign of being discharged. Then  charge it fully as  soon as possible. Memory effects are not the problem they used to be, but are still a factor. Rotate your  batteries so all see occasional use. If you don't use a particular battery often, drain it periodically through normal use - maybe 3 or 4 times a year will be enough to avoid memory. To do so more often will hurt the battery more than it helps.  Don't store a battery unless it is fully charged and even then run it through the charger every few months or so.

 Nicads lose about 10% of their charge a month in storage. Don't count on a battery to deliver full service if it's been sitting in your glove  compartment for several months.

 If you have a battery that doesn't seem up to snuff, any possible memory it has developed may be able to be reversed. Drain the battery  until it's dead, then charge it fully. Do that several times and you probably will notice the battery come  up more and more each time until  it's near full capacity. Of course, if the battery is shot there's  nothing you can do, but a vast majority of batteries can be rejuvenated  if they haven't been abused too much.

 It is possible to extend the life of nicad batteries by using the full  capacity originally designed into them. Several firms,  in fact, sell battery "analyzers" or "exercisers", whose job it is to drain a battery  and charge it up, and do that through several cycles. Fancy versions have a microcomputer that tracks battery performance and indicates its condition on a digital readout. We recommend a battery analyzer to any operation having more than 30 or 40 batteries in service. The  analyzers must be ordered with the appropriate "personality module" for the exact battery to be treated. Note that an  analyzer usually has several slots, and each can be set up for a different type of battery. Excellent  investment, especially with many radio nicads costing from $50 to $90.  It should be possible to extend battery life from 30% to 50% by   exercising them, keeping them charged, and not draining them down too deep. Work the numbers out yourself and call us if you have any questions.

 Incidentally, disposable (nonrechargeable) batteries or packs are available for many radios. They are expensive, but will run the radio 5 to 10 times longer than a rechargeable. Mercury or alkaline throwaways are intended for certain critical  operations where a user won't see a charger for days at a time. I'm not recommending them, but be aware  that they exist.

 Please don't use the rubber duck on your portable as a handle. The  antenna connectors on the radios will last till the second coming if they are not abused, but they may go intermittent if excessive stress is put on the connections. And if  the antenna connection develops a problem, not only may the radio fail you at a critical time but the  transmitter power amplifier transistors may be damaged. Neither is desirable. Every so often on a job I'll ask an officer to let me see his  portable. It's not unusual for the officer to grab the antenna as the handle to pull the radio out of its holster. I cringe, especially if we maintain the radios. Train your people to take care of their portable radios as they would their weapons (and that's probably not a good comparison...). Most of us non Dirty Harry types use our radios more often than we use our weapons.

 Speaking of holsters, especially for you private operations, they're a  good investment. Virtually any radio not in a holster will be damaged  if it is dropped. In a holster, probably not. And, with a proper holster (as opposed to a belt clip)  there's less chance of the radio eating dirt. A swivel holster is a real nice thing. You remove the entire radio, holster and  all, from your belt by turning the radio completely upside down and lifting it up. The radio is free to swivel back and forth on your belt, letting it tilt up out of the way when you sit down in your unit. Every radio I know of is available either with a  swivel holster or a swivel mounted directly on the back of the radio. Try it, you'll like it.

 Radio holsters are available with various types of flaps. Some are the  T flap (most popular), and the full flap (best if you work a lot in the  rain). Use some sort of a flap to keep the radio where it belongs. If you have a swivel holster the radio  always stays in the holster and you take the whole thing off your belt.

 A remote speaker mike is a convenience. It lets you operate the radio from the mike clipped to your collar or wherever, without removing the radio from your belt. They work OK if your radio system has good coverage. With the antenna and  radio on your belt, your body soaks up a significant amount of signal and sometimes you have to get the antenna  away  from your body and up high to get out well enough to be heard. Try one before you buy a bunch for your department. I love 'em. When you're talking at the radio, you'll be heard best if you speak  across the mike rather than into it. When  you talk into a mike, its element must absorb all the power of your voice. In a human voice the  intelligence is in the high

  frequencies, and the power in the low. The mike will pick up the highs and ignore most of the lows if you talk  across it.  Also the humidity in your breath won't do the microphone any good in the long run. Maybe 45 degrees is OK although 90  degrees sounds  best to my ear. Experiment - it's free. Various radios may react differently. If you can, turn your back to the wind when youre transmitting. Wind noise you don't hear yourself will sometimes be  picked up by the radio as loud  as your voice. Listen to how guys at the other end sound.

 Don't take a throat culture on the mike. Properly designed radios will  deviate fully when you speak at a normal level a  few inches from the mike. Speaking closer will muffle your transmitted voice as well as pick up an excess of sibilance (the "s" sounds on words, like in  "signal" or "sam"). Excess sibilance will make any words with "s'es" in them sound hissy. You hear it a lot on FM broadcast stations for some reason. Also, do not shout at the radio. Human nature is to  holler at the radio or telephone, especially if conditions are bad. The radios are designed to give you best audio quality when you're speaking normally. In the heat of battle, or if you're frantic, screaming will only degrade your signal. Train  yourself to stay calm, cool and collected on the radio at all times. That's the mark of a professional. It's OK to enunciate clearly or switch to phonetics if conditions are bad, but screaming won't help. If people listening to you claim your   transmit audio is low, turn the radio in for service. Usually a simple  adjustment will fix the problem.

 If your radio picks up an excess of background noise, ask the radio shop if the "mike gain" can be dropped a bit. This  will not reduce your  voice level, but will determine how far away the microphone will listen. Generally you don't want a lot of mike gain, as your radio will then pick up your siren, foul language from the people you serve, or  your partners'  graphic assessment of how management is handling the situation.

 Back to the portable on your belt for a minute. If you're on UHF, you might have a skinny antenna about 6 inches long,  or you might have a fat stubby antenna about 2 1/2 inches. The longer antennas work better, but they tend to be bent and eventually damaged by our fat guts. If you  carry the radio on your belt a lot, try a stubby duck. In addition to being short enough so it doesn't get bent by being up against your blubbery ribs, the short length also resists being used as a handle.  Stubby ducks are available for any UHF radio if you ask around. If  you're on VHF, with a fat antenna about 6  inches long, you're out of luck. And if you're on low band, with an 18 inch antenna, it will hit  you in the ear when the  radio's on your belt. Sorry.

 Some guys, especially in the private sector, try to make a handheld double as a mobile radio by attaching a mag mount antenna, a cigarette lighter power cord and maybe a speaker mike. You're not being clever.  You're being cheap. Handheld radios are designed to work magnificently  with the amount of signal picked up by the relatively small rubber  antenna. When you cram a lot of signal in from an external antenna,  you're likely to experience overload, intermod and  other nasty things  happening to the receiver. There just isn't enough room in the handheld to put the same filtering that  is in the mobiles. You'll probably blame the radio when it hears crap from other channels nearby in frequency. Also, you  can tell the guys transmitting on a handheld from the car. Their signals are frequently weak and full of wind noise. The  whole thing is a bad idea. You'll eventually wear out the antenna and power connectors on the radio from the constant plugging and unplugging them.  If you genuinely need a mobile, buy a mobile. The same holds true for convertacoms ("jerk and runs") although to a lesser degree as the convertacom consoles usually have some sort of filtering and amplifying in them to supplement that of the handhelds. We build mobiles for a  reason. One legitimate exception is certain jurisdictions, like Baltimore City, where the repeater network is so fantastic that a handheld, on its own antenna,  is completely adequate to provide good signals from a radio inside the car.

 In many jurisdictions, repeaters are balanced for a signal from a mobile. Realize that just because you can hear the  repeater fine from a handheld in the car, it can't necessarily hear you.

 Make sure that any external antenna you use is the proper one for the radio. All antennas are not the same. Even if you put a VHF antenna on a VHF radio, the antenna must still be tuned to the particular frequency using appropriate  equipment. I've seen officers hook the CB antenna on the car to their police handheld. This is totally ignorant. If the radio works at all, it's likely to be damaged sooner or later  from operating into a mismatched antenna. The same holds  true for scanner antennas. Scanner antennas are not designed to be transmitted  into, and will probably damage the transmitter if you try. The proper antenna is not prohibitively expensive. Do it right. Also, choose trunk lip or permanent mount antennas over magnetic mount wherever possible.  They work better. And don't crush the coax. The characteristics of coax  are dependent on its physical characteristics. Roll the window up on it one time and it's shot. And make sure if you solder a connector on you do the job properly, with good solder and enough heat. Don't melt the  insulator on the coax though or you'll mess it up just as if it was  crushed.

 Various antennas are available for mobile and base use. The smallest  and cheapest is the 1/4 wave antenna. This will be  about 18 inches or  so long for VHF, and about 6 inches for UHF. Next best, on VHF, is the 5/8 wave, or for UHF, the  collinear. A collinear on UHF is the antenna with the bump halfway up its length. Mount whatever antenna you select as  high on the vehicle as possible, keeping in mind clearance in underground parking lots, low tree branches, etc. Sometimes you're better off with a smaller antenna mounted on top of your light bar than you would be with a larger  antenna mounted on the trunk or fender. And the closer the antenna is to the center of the car, the less directional it will be. An antenna mounted on the left fender will be  directional off towards 2 O'Clock. In the center of the roof the pattern  is pretty much circular. This information might be helpful if you're stationary in a weak coverage area. Merely by parking your unit pointing in a different direction might take you from a marginal signal to a strong one.

 Please take some care with the cord and microphone on your mobile radio. Don't pull on it beyond its limits if you can  help it. Don't hang it over the rear view mirror. Try to keep it in its hanger if you can. Most modern radios that use  "tone" count on the mike being grounded through the hanger to turn on the receive tone. If you're supposed to have tone but you still hear other users on the channel,  try touching the hangup button on the back of the mike to something   grounded in the vehicle. If this shuts up the other user then make a  point of keeping the mike hung where it belongs when you're not brushing your teeth with it. And of course, the mike hanger must either  be screwed down to real metal or have a wire run from under a mounting screw to ground. I've seen radios come through from allegedly professional radio shops where the mike clip was screwed to plastic and everybody wondered why the tone didn't work. Although, I agree that finding metal in a car anymore is a real challenge.

 Rotating back around to portables again - when you're talking on them,  keep the radio vertical and as high as possible.  If you read my piece last year on radio communications, you'll understand the importance of polarization. Don't hold the  radio at an angle with the antenna  pointing over your shoulder. That can kill half your signal. If the radio's on your belt and the dispatcher complains you're 10-1, take it off your belt and stick it up in the air as far as your arm will reach. This is assuming, of course, that you're using a speaker mike. That, by the way, points out another advantage of a speaker mike - it lets you poke the radio way up in the air when you're talking so it gets out better.

 If your portable is one of the new Captain Whizzo radios with a digital readout, don't let the sun shine on the readouts for  long periods of time. If you leave the radio on the car seat, turn it face down. Excessive exposure to the sun will eventually turn the readouts completely black, beyond repair.

 Virtually every competitive bid we get in for portable radios specify 5 watts of transmit power. A more powerful radio is not a better radio. You must consider battery life as well as radio and battery size. It's very difficult to tell the difference in performance between a 3 watt and a 5 watt radio although the 5 watt radio will use batteries twice  as fast. Most radios  nowadays determine the power by which battery is attached. Ask for a demo radio and try several different batteries. I'll bet the lower powered battery will be satisfactory, and you'll be happier with twice the battery life. When we get a request from an  individual officer for a 5 watt radio, we send both a 3 watt and a 5  watt battery with the radio. We then let the  officer pay for whichever battery he chooses and return the other. We rarely sell a 5 watt battery to someone who's had a  chance to try both. The prices are the same for either, and we really don't care which you choose. We don't want complaints, however, from those who insist on a 5 watt battery and then bitch that it only lasts them 6 or 8 hours.

 Estimates of battery life are rated on a duty cycle that takes into account transmitting time, receiving time and standby time. Up till  recently, a 10% - 10% - 80% duty cycle was the standard of comparison. This meant 10% transmit, 10% receive and 80% standby. A battery would be spec'ed to last an 8 hour shift at 10-10-80. With the advent of synthesized  radios, especially some of the newer or more inexpensive  ones, current drain is higher than it used to be. And to meet all the  high power specs the beancounters insist on, a battery must be large in order to meet 8 hours at 10-10-80. So what did the industry do? Rather than be honest about whether high power is really necessary, they  downrated the battery spec from 10-10-80 to 5-5-90. This lets them claim high power out of a reasonably sized battery and still try to   make us believe the battery will last a whole shift. The 5-5-90 duty  cycle is completely unrealistic for most agencies. A  realistic spec in  a busy department might be 10-60-30 (transmit, receive, standby). And, if your radio scans several busy channels it may never be in standby. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If you are on a busy system and have a five  watt or more portable, your battery almost certainly will  not last an entire 8 hour shift. This is such a problem that we have a special battery manufactured for the ICOMS we sell that is twice the capacity of the factory battery. Don't believe  sales literature or a salesman. Try before you buy, and make sure the battery you evaluate is  the one that will be bid on a competitive procurement. Some operations genuinely need as much power as they can get from their portables. But  their radios won't be cute and tiny. If you have trouble with portable coverage, consider improving the system or installing vehicular repeaters.

 A quick tip - many of us are using the Captain Whizzo radios with the capability to scan lots of channels. There are radios out that operate up to 320 channels, which is ignorant in my opinion, although most multi channel radios have maybe 16 positions. If you have a primary channel and don't need all the slots in your radio, you can program your primary channel in more than one slot so it gets scanned more  often. For example, if channel 1 is your main dispatch, and you have a 16  channel radio with spare positions, you can program it to scan as follows: 1-2-3-1-4-5-6-1-7-8-9-1-10-11-12. Get the picture? Your  priority channel will be scanned 4 times as often as any other. Also, if you have a repeater channel with a talkaround on the repeater output, don't put the talkaround channel in the scan sequence. Otherwise if you get a call on  the repeater your radio might stop  scanning on the talkaround channel, and when you answer there you won't be heard.

 Well, I'm about talked out for now. In the next issue we'll cover care  and feeding of night vision and other optics, maybe some surveillance  transmitters and anything else you'd like to hear. Please give either me or the magazine some  feedback so we have some idea of whether these  articles are useful. Your inputs determine the content of these articles. Anyone who's in the Baltimore area is welcome to give a call and maybe we can "do lunch"! Please call if you have any questions or comments on these articles or if we can assist you in any way. Many agencies are now spending grant  money and need to be sure they are  getting the biggest bang for the buck.

 If any of you out there are Blue Knights, how about doing a piece on  yourselves? I used to ride with Maryland 1 years  ago, and never met a finer group of guys and gals in my career.

  A final question, for those in the inner sanctum: Are you a turtle?
 Let me know.

Copyright (C) Steve Uhrig, SWS Security, August 1988

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