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EF Johnson Advice

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Nov 24, 2017

Excuse the length of this message. Trying to get some advice.

I volunteer (I am the tech guy) at a charter school for exceptional children. After a recent minor safety issue came up between a student and a staff member at the school, we have been searching for a better communications solution to help stay in contact. Originally, we were relying on cellphones for emergency communications – not going to cut it long term. I have looked at Wifi solutions and Cell Phone apps but they lack the “instant” communications required for an emergency situation.

As we try to figure out the best solution, I have kind of wandered into a political briar patch between the school admins, a parent who also a significant donor to the school, a Motorola dealer in our county, and the school administration.

An EF Johnson dealer in another county is related to one of the school’s parents/major donors. I could use some straight answers about EF Johnson 5100 series radios from people who know the equipment and modern RF systems in general. Any other helpful commentary, links, guidance, is also welcome. I am a software developer by trade, had my HAM license as a kid, but in the deep end of the pool on these issues to be honest. As the school tech guy, school leadership is asking me to be the “neutral party” on this issue and find a long term workable solution.

The current thinking has been to equip the equip key staff with used EF Johnson 5100 series 700/800 Mhz radios that *I’m told* are fully compatible with the county's 800 MHZ trunked system. Our County uses Motorola radios on a system that supports SMARTNET and P25 and apparently everything else 800 Mhz under the sun. I am assured by the donor/EFJ Dealer that the EF Johnson will work with the county system, a walk around test approved by the county proved this out. Our County public safety tech person that admins the 800 MHZ Network is okay with the EFJ units, but has told us that we would be responsible “for the handhelds, county is responsible for the airwaves”. The best analogy I have been given: ISP that offers bandwidth, I am responsible for the computers that plug into the connection. This make sense?

I’m worried about long term compatibility. Since they are used, the radios are being offered to us at a significant price break. Without getting into details, an organization/task force overbought the EFJ units a few years back, task force was disbanded – EFJ Dealer bought radios back from taskforce. Prices per radio are much cheaper that what I saw on eBay. The EFJ dealer is only charging us the “bench time” (I believe that is the right term??) to wipe the old radio configs and then put in the new county configs

A few questions:
1. What are the differences between these the various EFJohnson models, please.
EF Johnson 51SL ES
EF Johnson 5100
Which is newer?? Would love to know the history of these models and how they compare technically. These are all 700/800 MHZ. I did a walk test with a EF Johnson 51SL ES

If anyone has some links that shows the difference between the various EF Johnson 5100 versions, that would be very much appreciated. As they are end of service or no longer made, I am hesitant to recommend a bunch (about 20) used radios. We have had technology donations in the past that have turned out to be pain filled long term maintenance projects for yours truly. I'm not getting a ton of rhythm that the local radio dealer offering the EF Johnson units is going to be there to support us long term. The EF Johnson Dealer has been wonderful to work with . Rumor is he is looking to retire soon.

2. Forgive my ignorance, but is it common to have RF transmission gear (Morotola in this case) from one manufacturer and radio handhelds from another? I was given a demo of the radio programmed on the county system, seemed to work “ok”. County has a digital trunked 800MHZ system that is “multi protocol”. While it is a rather advanced system, the county is a 100% Motorola shop. Apparently, some state politics got into play when the system was purchased. Motorola has a lot of pull on the state level.
Motorola dealer is only interested is selling us new Motorola equipment --- which we can’t afford. The original sales pitch seemed based on fear and take it or leave it option. The local Motorola dealer services the countywide system. Morotola dealer is not the easiest people to work with. When talking with them, I get the feeling that Motorola has conveyed to their dealer network some type of papal license descended from Marconi himself. Motorola dealer for the county has been adamant that the only “workable” long term solution for the school is buy new Motorola radios from his company. Motorola dealer made a much different impression than the EF Johnson donor/dealer. EFJ person seems willing to go the extra mile. EFJ dealer is telling me that Morotola pulls this BS nationwide all the time. Thoughts?

3. Since we are a licensed school, the county is able to "rent" us a talk group for the radios. There is some talk of putting a booster repeater at the school to help increase coverage. County radio admin person likes this idea as the device would enhance coverage for our radios and the other county users (Police, Fire, Public Works). This county wide coverage would be ideal for field trips etc. The "walk test" I did with the EF Johnsons 5100 (700/800 MHZ radios) worked well outside. There were some dead spots in our brick building (older construction from 1970s --- been rehabbed and updated) that gave me concern. County has a spare repeater unit they said they could deploy at our school. In an odd twist, the school owns the land where a cell tower is currently located. I believe this would give us rights to place "something" on the tower at a steep discount, which would be w win for the county. School is in an expanding area of the county and the cell tower is apparently in a sweet spot for the wireless companies.

4. Security -- I'm told that Digital 800 MHZ trunked is “generally secure and mostly scanner proof” from people listening in?? As in you have to know what to program and all the codes to listen into the system?? If Child XYZ has an ADHD episode, we need to be mindful of that child’s privacy. Apparently, there are options on the EFJohnson to encrypt the voice channels. I would love to know if the encryption options (that are available on the radios being offered to us) would be long term workable with the Motorola trunking system?

If we activate AES on these radios does the Motorola repeater system have to be aware of the AES configurations? Can we use standard Motorola “signaling” on the radio but encrypt the voice audio? EFJ Dealer tells me my encryption request would make maintenance a pain in the a**? Would love someone else’s opinion on this issue.

5. Features and reliability -- Our teachers are wonderful people, but in an urgent situation, we don’t need to be messing with tons of buttons. The EF Johnson programmable buttons (the red one on the top) seems wonderful as it could summon help rather quickly. EFJ dealer says it is rather easy to wire panic buttons into a desk unit if we need it, which would be a wonderful thing. County has offered to grant one radio (in the office) access to the county wide dispatch – also a big plus for us.

Thoughts? Thanks for your time.


Premium Subscriber
Mar 21, 2008
EFJ 5100

I am not an expert on these radios, but I have 4 of them and can give some hands on information. The models you list are different production dates but can be used together. I use one for our VHF spotting nets and have a couple of 900 mhz radios for a local repeater, in addition to an 800 mhz unit configured for receive only used to monitor during nets. Age is the biggest thing against them, and I have had two others fail. In a simulated emergency test the vhf model clearly outperformed any of the standard ham handhelds in terms of dependable range. I have used the 900 on a P25 repeater without encryption. You will need to have encryption because there are many scanners that can easily receive standard P25 transmissions.

Mine were all purchased through eBay, so I would think ones with a known history and knowledgeable dealer would be worth serious consideration. Good luck and I hope this helps.
Feb 11, 2009
You would need to have a site survey done inside the building to determine if coverage is reliable with hand helds.
If not, then a distributed antenna system with a Bi Directional Amplifier will need to be installed and that will cost many times more than the cost of the radios


Premium Subscriber
Feb 15, 2005
My opinion is only one opinion of many. My comments come from years working successfully with several different communications systems, including state-wide, regional, local, state-owned, federal, and private. Comments here are only off the top, probably missing details, is a first-draft, and in-depth analysis of your questions and concerns is not intended. I have no vested interest in any dealership or vendor.

  1. Have you coordinated with the Radio System Manager? They should have documentation available for users coming on board which should include technical requirements of subscriber radios, specifically what models and features are required, as well as programming settings. If they don't, then you're walking into a swamp. Regardless, you NEED to have a system usage agreement formalized (in writing and signed by all parties) that clarifies who's responsible for what, the costs, and the Service Level Agreements (SLA).
  2. Every system I've worked with has had multiple brands and models of radios on it. The key is if they've met the requirements identified as discussed above. The most problematic issues have been systems where the System Manager was actually tied to a manufacturer, with a propensity to include some proprietary schemes that, oh my gosh, preclude using anyone else's equipment. Again, see above. I've seen EFJohnson, Harris, Tait, Motorola, RELM, BK (Bendix King), and Kenwood all mixed together and happily talking with each other—but again, based on requirements, they can have issues.
  3. What does your contact mean by “multi-protocol?” Analog and P25? Is the P25 Phase I Common Air Interface? Or do they use P25 Phase II. Again, go back to the requirements. Not all models of radios can be upgraded to Phase II.
  4. Whoever your dealer is, I assume that they will do the programming. Do they have a relationship with the System Manager? They'll need to in order to obtain the specifications and system keys to properly program the radios. What support agreement will they provide you with?
  5. To answer the EFJ hardware concern, EFJ 51SL ES and current 5100s are the most recent in those series, but as you're aware, they're end of life. Unfortunately it sounds like your budget is minimal, so hope that the system will work with these. They're great, rock solid radios, but be sure they'll meet the system requirements. I've seen 20 year old Motos and EFJs in service on updated systems working just fine, but things do break. EFJ's support has been great. (Find some VP400 or VP600 current models and you can have the Phase II if needed.) You can also find reliable used Motos as well.
  6. Encryption? The most recent EFJ 51SL ES and 5100 models include, at no charge, one DES OFB encryption key slot. This will pass through the P25 system with no issue, no degradation, and no range impact if permitted by the the Manager. AES is more secure, but really, DES is enough for non-hyper-critical communications. New radio manufacturing requirements will require an AES slot at minimum. Your dealer will need to program the encryption key, but that's 15 seconds to hook up the cable and press a button once it's set up. Just don't give out the key (be sure your dealer is party to a non-disclosure agreement so that the dealer keeps it secret and doesn't use the key in any other user fleet) and it won't really have to be changed too frequently, if at all.
  7. Your dealer should also program the radios with password protection on both read and write. Lots of people have access to the programming software, and if there's a password, you're safer on the configuration from curious eyes.
  8. The System Manager assigns the Talk-Group IDs for the trunking users. How many will you need? One for normal admin activities? Or another for maintenance? Or another for security? Decide and negotiate what the fees might be. Get it in writing with your Service Level Agreement (SLA).
  9. Area coverage for portables can be a problem. Be sure to negotiate some local simplex channels (perhaps best would be the national interoperability channels for communications with local incident command if it ever comes to it, i.e., 8CALL90, 8TAC91, … and their Direct channels), or at least a local county tactical channel for incident coordination (and get that into your Emergency Operations Plan!). If you can get them to install a local amplifier, that would be great, since in-building communications is critical to your successful implementation of the new system.
  10. Because you're part of a local government, you'll need to pay particular attention to the bureaucratic (screw the politics, but some rules are good rules) purchasing rules and procedures. They may require you to go through a Request for Bid but that also implies you know your requirements and specifications. Your purchasing department or your local government purchasing department should give you guidance on that.
  11. An alternative is, depending on the size of your campus, putting up your own conventional repeater? It's not necessarily a harder thing to do and can be quite effective. A local dealer is key to helping you with that.
  12. Last of all my off-the-top-of-my-head-comments, get yourself a local communications consultant. You're on the right track asking questions.
Hope that helps.
Jul 27, 2005
Point Nemo.
OK, edited my post.
I had a big long reply to all your questions, but it's hard to read all that. Let me summarize it and you can ask me if you want more info.

The EF Johnson radios are fine, I ran them for years on a trunked radio system with other Motorola radios. It was a different type of trunked system, but they worked.

The radios are large and heavy. Fine for public safety use, not fine for teachers/administrator use. Having one of these yanking your pants down all day long gets old.

Radio in this class (not just EF Johnson, but the Motorolas also) are very complex, feature ladened radios. Not a good solution for users that are not heavy radio users. Teachers/admin people are not going to be happy with these in the long term. They are designed for an entirely different class of user.

High pressure Motorola sales tactics you described are par for the course. You've just been initiated. Welcome to the club. Some Motorola sales guys will tell you anything to get you to buy their radios. You are wise to be skeptical.

There are a lot of fine details in making all this work that you haven't addressed. Some of those can be quite expensive. That's a red flag, to me.
-Radio upkeep, maintenance, periodic alignment, repairs, replacements, etc. all add up over time. It's not cheap.
-System access may come at a charge. Find out now. If they are offering system access for free, get that in writing with a start/end date for the "free" service. Make sure it's signed by someone who has the authority to sign it at the County.
-Consider that no radio system lasts for ever. Buying into the county system means you are buying into their schedules. As technology changes and systems age, you may find that at some point in the not to distant future, that system might get replaced. That can leave you out to dry.

But honestly? If you really want to know?

This sounds a whole lot like textbook classic "Scope Creep".
When you started your post, you referred to an incident at your school between a student and staff. I get it, that's a bad thing, and good communications can be a big benefit in something like that.
But, something that could be solved simply has snowballed into a county wide trunked system, high end radios, in-building coverage systems, another repeater, and a few other things.
Looking at how you got from point A to point B is interesting. Looks a whole lot to me like the need for communications was brought up because of this incident. A well meaning donor offered up something, however what they offered is in an entirely different class of solution than what you need.

Basically, it's overkill in my mind. Way overkill. Expensive overkill.

There are much easier ways to solve communications issues like this. Might be cheaper, too.

I really think jumping headlong into a county wide trunked radio system for this is going way to far. The lure of a few inexpensive radios seems to be powerful, but I think it's leading you down the wrong path, and expensive path.

None of the stuff you talked about has been cheap, and I doubt all of it's going to be donations.

The complex radios are going to overwhelm the end users, and that's going to cause them to get shoved in drawers or used incorrectly. It's not what you want. Simple radios will give you better results, and, probably get more radios in the hands of those that need them.

Kudos for you for taking this on, but I get the feeling someone is pushing you in the wrong direction pretty hard. From my point of view, it's not making sense.
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Premium Subscriber
Jul 27, 2006
There are some good replies above, so I'll keep it short. The number one thing in my mind reading your post is that you are looking into joining onto a large and complicated countywide radio system that probably works great if you need radios that work countywide. Your needs are probably much more simple than that though. If you only need to cover a small campus area, you could probably get away with a single conventional repeater on site, or even simplex mode which would require little to no infrastructure purchase. You could still do this on 800MHz using the free/cheap donated radios. There isn't as much of a market for 800MHz radios, so both now and in the future you could find cheap radios on ebay (or other used market, of course making sure that you are buying known good radios if their reliability is critical). Make sure you realize that you're going to need to replace batteries every 3-5 years no matter what radio you have. If there is a need to talk directly to the police or other county agency, you could have one of two radios programmed with their channel sitting in the office or other central location rather than go through the trouble of having every single radio capable of transmitting on their channels (either intentionally or accidentally by a non-technical user).

And in regards to the comment about the radios being "too advanced", I'm not sure I agree (although I don't have experience with the particular models you mentioned). Most public safety radios are capable of having features and extra buttons disabled to make them "cop-proof".
Jul 27, 2005
Point Nemo.
And in regards to the comment about the radios being "too advanced", I'm not sure I agree (although I don't have experience with the particular models you mentioned). Most public safety radios are capable of having features and extra buttons disabled to make them "cop-proof".
The 5100's can be programmed with most of the functions turned off. However, that doesn't remove the buttons. After years of training on radio use, even unprogrammed buttons will confused users.
When a "non-radio user" needs to use a radio in a high stress environment, on/off and push to talk is about the limit of what they can handle. Expecting much more requires a lot of training. Frequent radio training usually doesn't last long. It's the first thing to get cut when schedules get busy.
A simplified radio with minimal controls really works better in these sorts of environment.

I have programmed our radios to use the top "emergency" button to switch to our emergency talkgroup. That way users only have to remember to turn the radio on and push the red/orange button.
Even then, that doesn't always get remembered.


Premium Subscriber
May 27, 2015
Hammond, IN
Many of the schools around my area are using FRS radios for their "on campus" communications. Funnily enough their radios also have a form of "scrambling" (which is really voice inversion), but it does make them somewhat more secure than without.
Dec 22, 2013
I worked for Motorola for 18 years. Fear Uncertainty and Doubt were terms we in sales were taught . I spent a lot of effort cutting through the crap to try to honestly serve customers.

You have gotten a lot of good advice. The best one was to rethink the original problem and how you could solve it without the complication of a county wide system, BDA amps to cover dead spots, pushy EFJ donor selling obsolete radios at "bench time" price, annoying Motorola marketing ploys, and the unknown unknowns.

You could solve this problem with some nice inexpensive DMR radios and a repeater system. You would need an FCC license, you might need a second repeater to fill in some holes. However DMR should be an easy project for an IT person as the repeaters link with IP. DMR is available from multiple vendors, not just big M. It is inexpensive, the radios are small , have an encryption mode that is fairly secure. DMR is a better protocol than P25 and has two slot TDMA so the school could have two simultaneous talkgroups, and even some lower priority TGs to justify the system for shared use.

Possible TGs


These users can share the system without hearing one another.

Buy small simple radios with channel knobs for ease of operation.

You could do this on a reasonable budget and be future proofed when the County changes things on the Motorola system (like phase 2 TDMA) that would obsolete those "free" EFJ radios. You would also be free from any charges the County might impose for access and having to be involved intimately with the County system. If interoperation is a concern, install a county control station in the admin or security office to call for back up.

There is also another option. ICOM makes a system that uses WIFI and walkie talkie radios with actual radio controls and PTT. However, you would have to make a very honest assessment of your WIFI coverage and capacity to ensure reliable communications.

Sent from my SM-T350 using Tapatalk
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Dec 22, 2013
As far as frequency band. If you do your own thing, with your own repeater or simplex it should be on the UHF 450 to 470 MHz band. Your school cannot justify to the FCC frequency coordinator its own 800 or 700 MHz channel. A BDA is a different animal as it would be operated by the County.

My leaning is to see what you can do with UHF DMR and avoid the complications, operation expenses and future equipment expenses around the County system.

Sent from my SM-T350 using Tapatalk
Jun 16, 2013
I'm going to have to agree with the others right now. I am actually dealing with a CISD who utilizes a regional P25 system right now, the district-wide maintenance and SRO's have access to the system. Each school has it's own, independent UHF (mix of analog and DMR) system for local comms. The issue is due to the fact the trunking is on VHF and the schools are running on UHF...the SRO's have to have multi-band radios. It was also poorly planned out as the district uses a vendor for their comms who isn't the same vendor they utilize for P25...recently some new multi-band radios were purchased for P25 and the assumption was made they would work district wide because they were "digital". Well, the district failed to notify the P25 sales person they had DMR at some campuses but analog at most and ended up with radios that can't work across multiple digital formats.

Now that being said, I'd also recommend a DMR repeater in the UHF band (or two if additional coverage is required). Admin, Atheletics, Maintenance, Security and SPED talkgroups are good talk groups to consider. Most schools I deal with typically only utilize Admin/SPED and Maintenance in reality though. It is recommened to balance the most traffic'd talkgroups on individual timeslots. So if Admin and SPED are the two most heavily utilized, put Admin on TS1 and SPED on TS2 and then divide the remaining talk groups across the slots evenly.

My favorite compact portable currently is the Motorola SL300 (which has a new successor) but other considerations are the Vertex EVX-S24 and the new Maxon portable.

If you feel the need to have access to the county system, purchase a new "control station" as recommended by the county and have it setup in the office. You will likely never have to use it.
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