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Police Radio Drills Throw Reporters for Loop

Police radio exercises caused confusion among the local media Tuesday.

First, shots were fired at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School. One subject was reported dead, as three suspects made off in a white Crown Victoria.

Several hours later, the same vehicle raced away from the scene of a crowded Conshohocken party after an officer was downed. Then, more shots were fired at the Montgomery County Public Safety Training Campus and a hazmat spill was reported on the Blue Route.

Fortunately, all of these scenarios were just training exercises for police dispatchers across Montgomery County Tuesday morning, playing out only across the airwaves.

"Nobody was running around on the streets," confirmed Frank Custer, communications director for the county.

Custer told Patch that the officers role-playing in the simulated incidents were broadcasting from either their home police stations or the Public Safety Training Campus in Conshohocken. Dispatchers from Whitemarsh, Lower Merion and Abington townships, along with the county Sheriff's department, were involved in the training simulations. Scenarios included shots fired, domestic violence incidents, transportation accidents and police pursuits.

Whitemarsh Chief of Police Michael Beaty says the drills are an important part of training.

"The training for dispatchers is to try and create real life scenarios," said Beaty. "They do a great job for phone calls, but when they need to do radio transmission, it helps to have training where there are outside noises and distractions."

However, to members of the press and a number of enthusiastic police radio listeners across the county, the drills seemed real enough. Without any forewarning about the exercises, listeners had to be fortunate to catch the initial disclaimer prior to the start of the drill. Otherwise, chatter often continued for 5-10 minutes without a second alert identifying the occurrence as a drill.

One local news source posted initial reports on the Plymouth-Whitemarsh shooting without knowing about the exercises, while Patch sent a reporter to the scene before learning that it was an drill. As the day went on, similar occurrences took place, leaving some reporters with one foot out the door as they waited to hear whether the incidents were real or not.

"There was only a brief statement on [county] emergency channels that 'this is a drill,'" said one former emergency worker who now actively listens to a scanner. "It all sounded very real, even having heard the announcement."

Beaty told Patch that the drills were held on a specialized radio channel, and not the main dispatch channel. While this helps keep things organized for law enforcement, anyone listening in with a scanner would not be able to differentiate between the two channels, as was the case for members of the press keeping an ear on the latest police activity.

All in all, an uneventful day with, thankfully, no real casualties. Just a few groans and new gray hairs for the local news media.

Patch regional editor David Powell and Norristown Patch editor James Myers contributed to this story.

NotWorthJoiningForOneComment July 11, 2012 at 04:29 PM
You think that's silly? Our PD had a cadet involved in a training exercise forget to switch his radio to the training talk group. His subsequent "foot pursuit" was rebroadcast by dispatch as an emergency. Cruisers were heading to the area from all over. Needless to say, training protocols were changed after that.
truthsayer July 12, 2012 at 12:38 PM
Chief Beaty's comments are inaccurate. The "specialized" radio channel is simply a channel (called a talkgroup) that is designated for special events or tacital operations. Anyone with a scanner radio capable of monitoring Montco's radio system would know the difference between the primary dispatch channel and the event or tactical channel, as it would be displayed on the screen of their monitoring receiver. Most events (drills, accidents, fires, swat callouts) will take place on these other channels, keeping the primary dispatch channel clear for dispatching calls to other departments. This sounds like a case in which Montco failed to identify the drill at specific intervals during the exercise, and the Chief is trying to belittle the media for failing to know it was an exercise, when it was not announced periodically. That could have dangerous consequences if uninformed public safety personnel would have come upon the transmissions, thinking it was a real event. But I am confident that public safety officials are looking forward to the near future when the public will no longer be able to monitor their activities, as new radio systems are installed throughout the country. Either full time encryption, or high tech digital technology, will prevent the public from keeping tabs on their "public safety" officials, and we will be deaf to what our public "servants" are doing. I'm sure you'll all sleep better at night, not knowing what's happening in you community.

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