By Marcello Iaia
KNOX — During a snowstorm, Knox plow drivers can hardly communicate, overpowered by nearby highway departments and businesses sharing the same radio frequency. Their radios are scheduled for repair in the coming week.
Highway Superintendent Gary Salisbury says chatter from other users interferes with Knox transmissions, even on their second channel, which is meant to communicate only between Knox two-way radios.
Tom Diederich of River Valley Radio Inc. said Wednesday that Knox radios should be working after a week and that drivers would be trained on how to use them.
“They have an operator issue and one defective piece of equipment that’s going to be repaired,” said Diederich, adding that the equipment needs its monitor function fixed. He said Knox radios have not been serviced in two years.
Berne and Rensselaerville highway superintendents on the same frequency have experienced interference as well.
“It’s getting to be kind of a safety issue, because, if we have a truck stuck, we can’t communicate with each other,” Salisbury said at the Jan. 8 town board meeting.
The Knox board asked that Diederich come to the next board meeting to explain the situation, and what can be done. The town purchased the radios from the company in Westerlo around four years ago, Salisbury estimates, for $5,000, with a $1,300 annual usage fee.
Berne Highway Superintendent Kenneth Weaver said interference heard previously in Berne is no longer there, since he spoke with Diederich about a month ago.
“They split the frequency so that we won’t get the noise from the other companies but we will be able to hear each other,” said Weaver, referring to area highway departments.
The splitting of frequency, Diederich said, is what some call the reprogramming of two-way radios to use narrow-band technology, a mandate of the Federal Communications Commission that started on Jan. 1 this year.
“They’re squeezing more channels in the same amount of radio space,” said Diederich.
With proper frequency coordination and licensing, overseen by the FCC, he said interference should not become an issue. Frequency coordinators determine who and where specific frequencies can be used.
Salisbury said he hears what might be bus drivers and a fuel delivery company.
Usually, the radios are usable because the other Hilltown highway departments on the frequency — Berne, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville — are not always talking. When snow falls, these four highway departments each have several trucks clearing and sanding tens of miles of roads.
“Occasionally, especially on large, heavy-duty highway trucks, you can have stuff that comes loose, the antenna could be bent,” said Diederich. “We get that regularly with highway departments.”
Diederich said Rensselaerville likely has a similar issue.
According to Highway Superintendent Randall Bates, Rensselaerville radios are working, but truck operators have complained since their radios were reprogrammed over the summer. He said feedback and skips can be heard now, and interference from outside transmissions is heard as static and dictated by weather conditions.
“We’re thinking it might be a transmitter in our base unit,” said Bates. “I wasn’t aware other towns were having problems.”
River Valley has done temporary repairs to the transmitter, an antenna — last visiting two months ago. Bates said the company is expected to return to do more.
With the first major snowfall after Christmas, Salisbury said, he drove to trucks on their routes in order to verbally coordinate plowing on smaller roads.
He suspects other towns often cannot hear Knox transmissions.
“I don’t hear Knox…Berne seems to be on it quite a bit when they’re out. We’ll just pick up and say, ‘We’ve got to wait for them guys to get off,’” said Keith Wright, Westerlo’s highway superintendent. Wright says his radios work as expected.
Bates said he hears only Berne and Westerlo.
A crackling noise disrupted the silence on a base radio in Salisbury’s office.
“I was told I would never have that, and I get a lot of that,” said Salisbury.
“I’m pretty much happy with what we’ve got. We don’t talk on them a lot,” said Wright.
The Rensselaer-based Comtech visited the Knox Highway Department in December and left its radios in Knox for testing. “It took us a few weeks, but eventually we got to every part of town doing whatever, and we’ve talked, and we were good with it,” Salisbury said.
Comtech’s system uses multiple towers and what it calls an Ultra High Frequency trunking system. In an e-mail, Comtech customer account manager Michelle Benson said Knox is using a conventional system and the Very High Frequency range just below UHF.
“That is not a dependable band during higher traffic periods, and circumstances that may affect transmission clarity such as snow storms,” wrote Benson.
Salisbury explained at the Jan. 8 town board meeting that Knox could trade in its mobile units to Comtech for $50 each, or receive 70 percent of what the company resells them for, not to be less than the trade-in. Knox has around 12 units.
Two out of six highway workers have cell phones, according to Salisbury.
In a year-old federal rule by the United States Department of Transportation, employers could face an $11,000 maximum penalty for allowing drivers of commercial motor vehicles to use hand-held cell phones.