Analog II: No Band Like Low Band
My dad was a volunteer firefighter back in the 1970s and 1980s. The fire department had a siren on its roof that went off every day at noon, and whenever there was a fire call. You couldn't hear it if you were more than a mile or two away from the station, and in that case you relied on the Plectron to tell you when there was a call. The Plectron was a radio receiver tuned to the department's radio frequency with a quartz crystal you plugged into the circuit board. When the particular paging tones were sent over the air for your department, the Plectron would go off with a noise that would wake the dead, or at least it woke me up every time. It was a fascinating device. I later learned that its frequency, 46.38 MHz., was used for dispatch by all the fire departments in the county. You could flip a switch and it would hear all the radio traffic on that frequency. You could hear the fire calls for neighboring departments, and their periodic radio checks. As I listed in to the various departments, I also discovered that the Plectron had a second frequency crystal plugged into it: 46.36 MHz. That frequency belonged to the county north of mine, and I was able to hear a few of the towns on the border. All of this with no more than about three feet of wire plugged into the back of the unit.
The Plectron was replaced in the 1980s with a Minitor, a pager that you could wear on your belt. The Minitor was convenient. You could carry it with you. Soon all the volunteer firefighters were sporting Minitors on their belts, all set to go off when their particular two-tone combination was received. I thought they didn't have the sensitivity of the Plectron, nor its buzzardly charm. The Plectron stayed on my dad's desk, right on top of the Radio Shack CB that mom used to talk with him during his evening commute home when the post-Convoy CB craze was in full swing. The CB was a great pre-cellular way to request that your spouse pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. For all I know the two radios are still there. There was also a requisite police scanner there, a four channel affair that also used those quartz crystals. The crystals were for the local police and sheriff's departments, although even back then the local PD would have the officer “landline” the department if they didn't want something sensitive going out over the air.
That scanner held little interest to me at the time. I was more interested in what else was out there. Programmable scanners existed back then, but they were prohibitively expensive. Sometime after the Plectron was retired in favor of the Minitor, I found an “Electra” multiband portable radio at a tag sale and paid the princely sum of $20 for it. Besides having AM, FM, Aircraft and shortwave band reception, it also had two “public safety” bands. One was VHF high-band, 145-174 MHz. The other was VHF low-band, 30-50 MHz. There wasn't much of interest on high-band at the time, but low-band had plenty of stuff to listen to. I found out that all the region's fire departments, mostly volunteer, were right around 46 MHz. Police and sheriff's departments were around 39 MHz, and the State Police were around 42 MHz. Tuning around I also found the local highway departments, my school district's bus frequency, and the local Taxi service. All on low-band. The slide-rule tuning was approximate, and when tuned to a particular frequency you'd also hear the users above and below it. This wasn't much of a disadvantage back then. Radio Shack sold this book called Police Call, and with a little judicious listening you could identify who you were tuned to even if you only had a general idea of the frequency. Eventually the increasing number of loggings and the number of interesting things to listen to necessitated the acquisition of a real programmable police scanner. After doing some research in the Radio Shack catalog, a holiday present request was made and I found a twenty channel(!) Radio Shack PRO-2020 under the tree.
Over thirty years later, my parents' fire department still dispatches out on 46.38 MHz. The county to the North has switched their operations to UHF, but still simulcasts on 46.36 MHz. I'm listening to both right now from about an hour's drive away, along with about a dozen other VHF low-band frequencies used for dispatch in the region. The 46.38 MHz. frequency is shared with a local city that also maintains a low-band simulcast of their fire operations frequency. The furthest dispatch frequency I listen to is about 70 miles away, but it and I both have some elevation to help things out. When the skip conditions are right, I can hear low-band users in the Midwest and deep South. The key is having enough antenna, although when conditions are right you can do it with a telescoping whip on a portable.
The general saying among many in the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) industry is “Low band is no band.” Many industry giants are trying to get their customers off low-band and up in frequency. Yet, many users still hang on to and use their low-band frequencies. I have seen thirty-year old low-band radios still in service by public works departments, CERT teams, and volunteer fire departments. A lot of the stuff is cast-off from other agencies who've upgraded their systems and changed frequencies. They'll use it until it breaks for the last time, and parts become unavailable through any avenue. In rural, especially hilly, areas it works exceptionally well. Many businesses in rural areas use VHF low-band, especially in places where mobile phone service is spotty to non-existent. Yes Virginia, there are places, some even in the Northeast, where you cannot get mobile phone service. I expect many of these users to continue using low-band until they are forced off the frequency. In many rural areas of the country, even an old 1980s vintage 20 channel scanner hooked up to a good antenna and programmed with the right low-band frequencies will keep you informed of goings-on within a hundred miles of your location.
Sometimes when I've got a particular frequency I want to keep an ear on, I go retro with a Lafayette HE-51, Lafayette Guardian 5000, or Watkins Johnson/CEI 977. A simple Sinclair passive multicoupler allows them all to share the same antenna. You could do the same with a TV antenna splitter and a couple of vintage police scanners or tunable public safety receivers that shouldn't cost you more than $20 apiece at a local hamfest. The key to successful low-band monitoring is the antenna. Most scanner antennas concentrate on VHF high-band through 800 MHz. That leaves a lot to be desired for low-band reception. A discone antenna, with the very important top whip element, will suffice if nothing else is available. Many low-band enthusiasts utilize CB, 10 meter, or 6 meter ham band antennas.
Low-band also has some territory for those of you who want to transmit. For those avoiding the minor inconvenience of getting their ham ticket, there is the CB service at what many consider to be the bottom end of the low-band, right around 26-27 MHz. You're limited in power, have forty channels, and legally can't talk more than 150 miles or so. Yet, for the most part in the United States those 40 channels are mostly dead except for small local pockets of activity. Bootleg CBers, known as “freebanders”, operate using modified ham and CB gear above and below the standard CB channels. You can find them anywhere from 25-28 MHz. using AM, SSB, and even FM modes of transmission. The area around 49 MHz. is also another free-parking space on the RF Monopoly board. There you find old cordless phones, baby monitors, and very very low-power walkie-talkies that offer about a quarter to half mile range for the most part. Still, there are some experimenters who have made their home there. For those willing to get their ham ticket, there is the ten meter and six meter ham bands, each on opposite ends of the low-band spectrum. Both can get very interesting at times when the band conditions are right.
The best ranges to start monitoring are the frequency ranges of 33-34 and 46-47 MHz. Many fire departments, particularly volunteer ones in rural areas, are licensed in these frequency ranges. Even if the department has gone to another frequency for their operations, they often still dispatch or maintain a simulcast of dispatch on the low-band frequency. During the day you can do a search in the business radio service allocations of 30.5-32, 35-36, and 43-44.6 MHz. Utilitiy companies, especially in rural areas, remain one of the biggest low-band users. They can be found in the frequency ranges of 37.46-37.88 and 47.68-48.54 MHz. The FCC's General Menu Reports site will show you who is licensed on low-band in your region. You can also participate in the famous T.W. Lee Analog Tradition. Use any old police scanner with a search function or VHF-low band tunable public safety band receiver. You get extra style points if you use something like a Lafayette HE-51 or old military surplus receiver. Start at one end of the band, tune your way through the entire band, and repeat. Note down each frequency and what you heard on the frequency. When you get tired, leave it on the last frequency you heard traffic on. Then take some DMAE, get some sleep, and call me in the morning. Don't be surprised if later you find yourself putting up a proper VHF low-band antenna, visiting Radio Shack for a TV antenna splitter, and searching flea markets, hamfests, and tag sales for old low-band receivers and police scanners. Just like AM broadcast band, there is a certain truth to VHF low-band.