The KA1RCI Network

The Big Blue Beast - 1995 GMC Suburban

Fun and Excitement doing some RFI Direction Finding

Officer needs assistance -- Shots fired. 

Reading like a chapter ripped from a Tom Clancy novel; a group of Rhode Island Amateur radio operators assist the Warwick, RI Police Department track down and prosecute individuals making unlawful and malicious transmissions on a large city police dispatch repeater system.

 By: Steven M Hodell, KA1RCI

More than 30 years ago, while working on different antenna projects in my backyard with my father Bill KA1VKD, I would wonder to myself, “Just how does Uncle Charlie (1) pinpoint my signal out of the RF chaos floating in the ether?”

Now, years later after gaining some experience in the art of tracking RF signals, here I was, helping Richard Andreano K3OQH of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (2) track down that one small signal.

The issue described in this story started in late July, 2007 when the Warwick, RI (3) Police Department noticed that its normal radio communications was being disrupted by unlawful and malicious transmissions to its dispatch repeater system.

Warwick is a city in Kent County, RI. The second largest city in the state, with approximately 86,000 people, Warwick is also home to Rhode Island's largest commercial air terminal, “T. F. Green Airport”, which serves the greater Providence area as well as provides overflow service for Logan International Airport in Boston, MA. Strategically, Warwick is an important city in RI.

Warwick PD Director of Administration, Major Thomas Nye and Col. Stephen McCartney were puzzled about how these transmissions were being made. Had one of their police radios been stolen? Could there be some odd atmospheric condition taking place that was causing interference from a distant station? Or were they truly faced with someone deliberately disrupting police operations?

The police were able to rule out any missing or stolen radios, and after a few more illicit transmissions, were also able to rule out atmospheric conditions. Col. McCartney needed to identify and stop these transmissions to keep his officers and the public safe. He wanted to quickly find the individual responsible for this illegal radio work as well as to send a message that this type of activity would not be tolerated.

In this post 9/11 era, we all live with a heightened awareness of attack. Overt disruption to public safety communication in any form is an extremely dangerous offense and should be taken very seriously and dealt with appropriately.

Major Nye contacted Rick, K3OQH at state EOC HQ for assistance. Warwick PD was not equipped to track down the malicious transmissions and needed technical help from someone experienced in Radio Direction Finding. Rick immediately drew from his Amateur resources and reached out to Denis Couture, KD1HA of the Cumberland, RI Police Department who helped assemble the rest of our team.

Lt. Paul Berry, KB1OCU of the Cumberland Fire Department, Officer Robert Chille, KB1AAW of the Warwick Police Department and Steve Hodell, KA1RCI ARRL Assistant Section Manager for RI were quickly brought together to work with Warwick PD Sgt. David DeAngelis (not a ham…yet) who was in charge of the overall investigation and Daniel Colwell, Warwick PD Communications Tech.

The Hunt Begins

With the first few phone calls organizing our effort to track down the source of these rogue transmissions, we agreed that the Warwick PD should be notified immediately that we would be in their city conducting radio surveillance. Descriptions of our vehicles including registration numbers were provided in an effort to head off any “suspicious vehicle calls” that residents might make.

Much to my chagrin however, this had exactly the opposite effect as the very first night our team began conducting surveillance my truck, a dark GMC Suburban with dark window and multiple antennas that I affectionately call the Big Blue Beast (4) and which is often mistaken for a police or secret service vehicle, was stopped by a Warwick patrol officer.

Only moments after our first planning meeting in the communications office,  as I was leaving police headquarters, driving to my surveillance location, I noticed a city patrol car maneuvering thru traffic on the busy four lane undivided highway behind me. The call crackled through one of my speakers…“Vehicle stop on Rhode Island King Apple One Radio Charlie India”. He was actually pulling me over! I was able to safely pull over to the curb a few car lengths up the busy road in a driveway apron and waited for the officer to approach my truck.

“Do you have a scanner in there with you?” the officer asked. I had to bite my lip to keep from grinning, instead made the prudent decision to simply answer, “Yes Sir” instead of trying to explain the difference between the thousands of dollars of radio communication gear professionally installed in a “Troy Products” Console (5) obviously visible in my truck and a mere scanner.

It was easy to anticipate the officer’s next question. “Did you hear me make the call on your truck on the police frequency?” Again I simply answered, “Yes Sir”.

Then the fun really started when he asked for my driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. Instinctively, I pulled my ID holder out of my pocket and produced my RI Driver’s license, however the very observant patrol officer also noticed my RI Pistol Permit, allowing me to carry concealed firearms.

I was unprepared for the next question…“Do you have any weapons in the truck?” Again, without thinking, I started to look down and then reached back to see if I had my sidearm with me.

When I looked up, there were several more patrol cars and officers visible in my rear view mirror and I started to think that I wouldn’t be doing any radio direction hunting that night. In some apparent miscommunication, the message this patrol officer received was to “be on the look out” for a dark colored GMC truck with many antennas and RI registration KA1RCI. Fortunately, Sergeant DeAngelis and Officer Chille (a ham) both heard the radio dispatch about my truck and quickly came to my rescue.

Soon, with this preliminary excitement behind us, the assembled teams of Police and Fire Communications Officers and Amateur Radio Operators formally started to DF the malicious transmissions on Wednesday evening July 25, 2007.

Several observations were made about the signal characteristics during these transmissions and in later review of the transmission recordings which identified the following:

During these transmissions, there were references made to specific streets in the north end of the city. Calls to patrol cars were made, "’P-28, where are you going?" These designations used would be the unit number visible on the side of the vehicle but not the radio call sign or signal assigned to the officer patrolling in that area. This observation directed the initial efforts to setup RF (Radio Frequency) DF (Direction Finding) teams to the Pilgrim High School area.

Using multiple UHF receivers with directional antennas and signal attenuators, three preliminary wide area locations in an approximate one mile perimeter around Pilgrim High School were set up to accurately triangulate the transmitter’s location. (Sites A, B, and C in supporting image_001)

After a few hours of monitoring, the suspect signal appeared on the air again and was quickly vectored with directional antennas to be in the area of Pilgrim High School. (Approximate Signal Location in supporting image_001)

The team immediately moved to set up three new locations, closer to the triangulated signal position. While moving towards the pirate transmitter area,

I detected a strong signal on the receiver in my truck along Warwick Ave. at the intersection with Benbridge Ave. which is an area directly behind Pilgrim High School.

Quickly switching in more attenuation, I drove down Warwick Ave. making sweeps up and down Iroquois Dr., Benbridge Ave., and Everleth Ave., however no further transmissions were made that evening, so it was not possible to pinpoint the transmitter’s exact location.

Stealth Mode engaged

We were all aware that the individuals making these transmissions had to have at least some fundamental radio knowledge and they could possibly even be monitoring our conversations while we were trying to coordinate our activities. Our teams were already using Amateur radios on a two meter simplex frequency to keep in touch with one another and we also requested that the dispatchers, and any officers assisting in the investigation, not say anything on the main Warwick police frequency about what we were doing.

Sergeant DeAngelis was also able to leverage the city’s new Motorola XTSTM 2500 800 MHz handheld radios (6) from the Rhode Island radio inter-operability system, providing our team with secure communications during the weeks of radio surveillance.

Rhode Island is one of 17 communities across the nation that has received a grant from the United States Department of Homeland Security to develop a standardized communication system for first-responders. The work is still ongoing to create a seamless communications connection among all police and fire departments, emergency medical services and hospitals in Rhode Island.

Using these new 800 MHz radios with their ability to provide secure digital communications, they played an important part in our overall process and utilizing them was truly a great model of interagency cooperation and a collaborative effort with volunteers from the Amateur radio community.

The 800 MHz radios enabled our team to communicate with the dispatchers back at headquarters who turned out to be a very valuable resource. Because the pirate radio did not have the appropriate digital ID (squawk), like the Warwick PD radios which would display on the dispatchers console, the dispatchers could immediately notify our team using the 800 MHz radios every time that the illegal transmitter was active.

Within seconds, Sergeant DeAngelis was able to covertly notify the dispatchers where each member of our team was located as we moved around the city. We wanted to conceal our activities and if a local resident call in a complaint about a suspicious vehicle with lots of antennas and the dispatcher made a call on the main frequency, our suspects could be tipped off and they could quickly dismantle their station.

Sergeant DeAngelis was also able to coordinate several “bate calls” with officers patrolling in the suspect area. After the first few nights of surveillance, it became apparent that the kids involved were watching the police activity in the area around Pilgrim High School and by dispatching patrol cars to that area would sometimes generate a rogue transmission that we needed to track down the signal’s source.

Once it was safe to conduct one of these fake incidents (officers were not out responding to actual calls etc.) Sergeant DeAngelis would create a scenario for a traffic stop or burglar alarm call, relaying what he wanted to the dispatcher using the 800 MHz secure radios. The dispatcher would notify the patrol officer via cell phone or via their in car terminals that the next call they would receive on the main police frequency would be an attempt to get the malicious transmissions to start.

Each of the Amateur radio operators were poised and ready with their directional antennas, attenuators, two meter radios, UHF police receivers, and 800 MHz handhelds. Goodness! We really did look like geeks with all that stuff!

A few weeks more of this stake out activity followed; setting up nightly surveillance, waiting for the unlawful transmissions, baiting the kids into talking and then triangulating on the signals source, narrowing the target area considerably each time. The team also received information from patrol officers, Michael Lima and James Wenneman after responding to a 911 hang up call about a suspicious radio at a certain home in the area of our investigation. With that information, we were able to pinpoint the exact signal location on Friday night, August 10th which turned out to be a home on Warwick Avenue, just a few hundred yards from Pilgrim High School.

Time to “Kick in the Door”

Rick, K3OQH from RI EOC worked with Sgt. DeAngelis in securing a search warrant the next morning, Saturday August 11th and the judge signed off on it Monday morning August 13th.

That night, after regular work hours, we all gathered again at the suspect location, setting up all of our radio direction finding gear and waited. Shortly after 7:15 PM one of the younger kids that we had identified as “10-4 radio check” began making transmissions on the Police Department repeater input frequency and we were able to confirm that the malicious and unlawful transmission was coming from the suspected residence.

Sgt. DeAngelis coordinated with several officers in a parking lot a block away from the house in preparation to serve the search warrant while we all watched the house to make sure no one left now that we had verified the unlawful transmissions source.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up as the call came over the radio… “It’s time to kick in the door”. Five cruisers, two unmarked cruisers, and the Big Blue Beast rushed the house.

It was a scene right out of the TV show, “COPS” with the officers shouting “POLICE -- SEARCH WARRANT”, entering the suspect residence and grabbing everyone in the house. The kids had pulled the microphone off the radio and threw it under the couch as the police stormed in. They tried to claim that the radio was just a scanner and was not capable of transmitting.

After the police secured the house, Sgt. DeAngelis reconnected the microphone and made several test transmissions from the suspect radio, proving that it was indeed capable of accessing the Warwick PD repeater. He called and spoke with one of the PD dispatchers using the pirate radio while the hams in our team; Rick, Denis, Paul, and Bob all confirmed that this transmitter was the one we had been tracking. (Exact Signal Location in supporting image_002)

I was also able to confirm that the suspect signal was coming from less than 100 feet of my truck parked directly in front of the house by using a 110 dB attenuator in line with my mobile receiver.

With the house secure and the suspects in police custody, the Sergeant asked our team to enter the home to identify and list all the radio equipment including power supply, antenna, and computer with the programming cable used to enter the Warwick Police frequencies etc. We inventoried everything and loaded it all into the Big Blue Beast for transport back the headquarters. It would later be used as evidence.

The Warwick police arrested four suspects that night. All males; two juveniles and two adults that were charged with obstruction and making a false distress calls, and there was also a fifth arrest made a few days later.

Our team of “Radio Geeks” as Sgt. DeAngelis had called us, night after night, used the city’s new 800 MHz inter-operability radios to coordinate one last meeting back at Warwick head quarters. Reluctantly, we all had to return those $9,000.00 fancy "Motorola" 800 MHz police radios... I did offer to hold the one that I had been using for safe keeping but Sgt. DeAngelis politely declined.

 In Rhode Island, this was one of Amateur Radio’s proudest moments rendering assistance to the police in their apprehension of some truly dangerous people. False or unauthorized signals on any public service frequency are potentially very dangerous to public safety and cannot ever be tolerated.

 In this instance, Amateurs from different agencies of government were quickly brought together with civilian ham radio assets and fox hunting techniques to work as an experienced team in quickly solving this serious problem. Clearly, Warwick Police has learned how truly valuable Amateurs can be to the community and at no cost to the citizens.  

 Notes:

(1)  Uncle Charlie - In the United States, it refers to the FCC.

(2)  http://www.riema.ri.gov/  - Domestic Preparedness Program Assistant

(3)  http://www.warwickri.gov/  http://www.warwickpd.org/

(4)  KA1RCI’s GMC Suburban – RF on 28, 52, 144, 220, 440 and 900 MHz

(5)  http://www.troyproducts.com/products/consoles.htm

(6)  The XTS 2500 portable radio is Motorola's high-performance, small-sized, digital two-way radio.

 Steven M Hodell, KA1RCI, is the President of the Narragansett Bay Amateur Radio Club and the ARRL RI Assistant Section Manager. He has been an active radio operator for more than thirty years and has often provided assistance in locating malicious radio transmission in the amateur radio and public service spectrum. He also maintains a statewide network of linked amateur radio repeaters in Rhode Island on 52, 144, 220, 440 and 900 MHz. http://ka1rci.net. In his professional life, Steve is a Vice President in the Network Computing Group for Bank of America providing enterprise wide crisis support at the national level. Steve may be contacted at ka1rci@arrl.net.

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