It can be a matter of life and death: Private persons using radio-jamming devices to interfere with emergency responder communication. And it’s on the rise.
Fire and rescue face extraordinary challenges in their efforts to save the lives and property of Americans everyday. When responding to a call for help, radio communication between responders and dispatch is a crucial element when even a few short minutes can save a life. But in a growing trend these radio transmissions are being jammed in a deliberate effort to frustrate first response to emergency situations.
It’s all too easy to do. Someone monitoring the frequencies used by emergency responders waits until a fire fighter or emergency medical technician identifies his radio identification code. Then the jammer keys a mike, preventing the emergency technician’s use. Sometimes the jammer repeatedly keys and rekeys to see if that particular emergency responder is still trying to communicate. Sometimes there’s silence or sometimes the jammer whistles into his mike. The jamming ceases when the emergency responder has been forced to quit attempting to communicate.
The issues with jamming is clear: First responders are unable to get the information they need, get it is scattered pieces, or receive the information too late. Emergency situations can prove fatal in seconds, so every moment counts. Jamming frequencies and disturbing communication between emergency professionals can result in fire and rescue or police from arriving too late to a scene and keep victims in harm’s way longer than necessary.
Radios are available that can be programmed to tune into specific frequencies, and the frequencies used by public safety agencies are often enough published on line. The radios jammers used are far more powerful than the ones in fire trucks and ambulances. A jammer keying his mike overrides them.
A quick Google search pulls up information on jammers for sale that block cell phones and XM radio frequencies. A quick search on marketplace giant Amazon yields few results. Because they are illegal, individuals wishing to jam emergency frequencies will need to rely on other means of securing a jammer, such as Craigslist, the black market, word of mouth, or building one.
For many it’s just a prank, but interfering with public safety communication is against federal law. In fact it is illegal to buy, sell, or operate a jamming device – an offense that carries with it fines of up to $112,000 per act and time in federal prison.
Many are not deterred by the consequences, however. The FCC is investigating a growing list of instances of jamming reported by exasperated firefighters and medical technicians. In 2012 the FCC instructed dispatchers in departments disrupted by jammer activity to read a statement over the air warning that interfering with the transmissions is illegal whenever it occurred.
So far emergency personnel have gotten around the jammer by relying on their personal cell phones for communication, but it wastes minutes that could make the all the difference in the world for someone in need of help.
U.S. Rep. Peter King (R) is considering proposing a bill that would increase the penalties for such acts. His proposed legislation would specifically make interference with public safety radio a federal felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Congressman King was moved to draft his bill by an incident in 2013 during which someone transmitted on the T-band radio channel for the Melville, New York Fire Department. The transmissions included words and chanting, officials said. After 10 months, police made an arrest with the help of the Federal Communications Commission.
The jammers rely on their anonymity to get away with their crime, but the FCC is working to help take this away. Newer technology can help federal authorities locate and track down jammers. Mobile monitoring devices and satellites can be used relatively quickly to pin down jamming activity.