Directorate of Telecommunications
Northern Area Maintenance Unit (NAMU)
I thought it was time to recognise the effort and innovative work carried out by the staff at what I call the “Real” NAMU (Kippax) and give them the exposure they deserve. Some of the “need to know” information is out of date by 25 years and in the public domain so I do not see a problem.
Not all members of staff are mentioned by name but those involved know who they were and what they contributed, that includes the technicians, assemblers, stores / admin staff and the cleaner.
1975, newly promoted; tasked with setting up and managing NAMU on a daily basis. Slight problem!! No building, only a vacant patch of grass within the depot compound at Kippax.
Clearly time was spent on various fact finding trips to Weyhill and Bishops Cleeve MU’s; picking Reg Honeywell’s and Les Sharrock’s brains, talking wish lists, handling procedures etc. no point in reinventing the wheel, just modify some spokes to suit the new track. A certain amount of liaison was required with Gus Baker (RWE Kippax) as it was his regional depot, likewise the odd meeting with the clerk of works and the builder.
Phil Archer arrived as SWT and we soon concluded that we were losing valuable time and needed somewhere to recruit and train staff while the main building work swung into action. A request to purchase temporary accommodation in the form of a portable cabin was sent to HQ, the said item was agreed and delivered. NAMU was born !!
Women with no previous electronic experience but good manual dexterity were recruited, taught component recognition, resistor colour codes, capacitance values, safe use of hand tools and the art of soldering in order to become electronic assemblers.
The staff complement for the MU had been set in advance by the powers that be and it was a case of bringing the talent on stream to meet the impending work as the load increased. Roy Stokes was the first tech to arrive. With test equipment and module test jigs delivered, we were up and crawling. Gus Baker was happy for us to iron out any teething problems by repairing his UHF handhelds. Shortly after moving into the building proper we added Marley Hill to the list and finally forces and brigades within Billinge region.
At that time The Directorate had adopted a maintenance servicing principle comprising four levels. 1st and 2nd level at detachment/depot, 3rd and 4th return to an MU.
Burndept BE 439 handheld radios were collected repaired and delivered back to their parent detachment on a weekly turn round. The three northern regions were colour coded. Red, Blue, Yellow; representing Kippax, Marley Hill and Billinge respectively. That coloured label also had alpha numerical designators. P49…West York’s. P52.. South York’s. P55.. Manchester Police. Fire brigade designators started with the letter F.
Each radio was booked in and out by serial number and had its own history card logging all repairs including No Fault Found (NFF). The UHF workshop time was proportionally shared between the three regions; Kippax and Marley Hill were allocated one and a half days each. Billinge was given two days due to having more sets in their patch and their return rate was higher.
No point going into detail of how to repair a radio lets just say the technicians / mechanics diagnosed faults and the assemblers replaced the necessary parts and returned them for alignment and spec test. Assemblers replaced the wire legs on the u/s modules in order that they could be easily inserted into module test jigs and repaired to component level. Some of the components being a trice larger than a pin head. Once repaired and spec tested those modules were fit to go again. Rogue sets that were particularly difficult to diagnose were passed to a NAMU invention; namely the “sticky tech”. This helped avoid bottlenecks and produced a steady work flow and workshop throughput.
Final test procedure using RF test equipment was conducted by assemblers to ensure an independent and impartial check, before radios were logged into stores for onward delivery back to the appropriate detachment / region.
We were continually active looking at various soldering / de-soldering tools and techniques; scouring watch maker and jeweller tool catalogues. Infra-red, solder paste, non-invasive hot air pencils and RF soldering irons with needle tips were tested. Using the latter you could switch it off and within seconds replace the bit without burning your bare fingers. Ultimately the hot air pencil was the perfect choice when it came to removing and replacing multi pin out “J” leaded IC, s and devices that did not actually have pins but minute concave indents.
Many companies advertised and promised the panacea to repair track and failed thru-plated holes. One rep walked in telling me he had the solution to all our problems so I handed him a module from a handheld. His reaction was to fall on his knees look up and said “God please teach me to keep my big mouth Shut”!
The issue with failed thru-plated holes was resolved when we contacted Tucker Eyelets; who produced eyelets for boots, sails, tarpaulins and the likes. Their catalogue had a range of miniature eyelets and after we tested a few free samples we opted to buy various sizes along with a small hand press and the necessary tools which rolled over the protruding tube end to form a fixed eyelet - another problem solved!
Some time later soldering courses were ran at Stanmore and a soldering manual was produced by Maintenance Planning Group (MPG) at Weyhill; alas any mention of input from NAMU was written in invisible ink.
Phil Archer waltzed in one day; he had been reading up on the Racal calibrator and found it produced a combed spectrum covering our UHF band and thought we may be able to use it in other ways. We borrowed a stepped attenuator from the depot; the mock up was then calibrated using stick on labels to mimic an RF signal generator. We were so impressed with the outcome we deployed it on a repair bench, replacing the proper sig gen, all sets repaired and calibrated passed final test.
I rang “Andy” Holdstock at MPG; not impressed and suggested I take a few weeks leave. Not to be put off I contacted the head shed at the radio engineering dept in Bradford University who said it would be a nice project for one of his Msc students. Weeks later the rig was collected along with a set of letter headed Bradford University papers, various test results showed the oscillator to be more stable than a lot of currently used RF generators and the RF output level was virtually constant across our frequency range. Copies were sent to “Andy” who demanded a demo and as a result the next purchase of Racal calibrators had an RF output with a small attenuate and a modulation tone. A big step up from the xtal controlled Pye gismo that detachments had, it leaked like a sieve.
Six or seven times a year we would liaise directly with a force and send a team of technicians and assemblers directly in to their area to check and if necessary replace missing items realign handhelds; bringing them back up to spec and effect any repairs in the time available. Batteries were exchanged on a new for old, one for one basis; those collected were then passed to Bishops Cleeve for testing.
Batches of new radios were also swapped on a one for one basis. Some of those taken from the forces concerned had never seen the light of day; issued for personal use to some senior officer they had languished in a desk. Rather than scrap those we kept hold and set them up on Channels 23, 25, 29 which were common emergency frequencies just in case there was a major disaster that required more boots on the ground. A visit from Don Oldnall, CWE at HQ had me doubting the decision when he queried who had given permission for this initiative as it had not come from above.
A few weeks later a call from the man himself along the following lines went;
“You know those radios that you don’t have on the emergency frequencies, the ones I know nothing about. Could they not be sent to Harrow on the next stores run and not marked for my attention as there is a southern force that don’t need extra sets to cover a party political conference. Don’t worry about batteries I’ll make sure they are not supplied”
The stock of emergency sets continued to grow and travelled to many areas after that. Over the years other models of handhelds were added in to the mix, BE470, BE600, PFX and Motorola. A huge journey from crystals to microprocessors, flexi-PCB, s and zebra strips
The first Police National Computer Unit (PNCU) contract to purchase VDUs went to SE Labs and they were repaired at Weyhill. The second purchase went to Delta Data to supply their 4050 model. At the same time the contract was let, various forces and fire services jumped on the bandwagon, to get economy of scale purchases, for their individual Command Control requirements .They included West York’s Police, The Met, Strathclyde Police and Manchester Fire.
3rd and 4th line of the 4050 and software changes were assigned to NAMU so now our area of responsibility extended from London to Glasgow.
Phil Archer moved over to set up the VDU workshop along with Bert Hare. The new kid on the handheld block arrived on promotion from Penrith, in the form of Dave Metcalf.
A DEC PDP11 computer was delivered allowing outstations dial up access to run a test program via a modem. On diagnosing a faulty board they rang the MU, a hot spare taken from one of two terminals that ran all day, was dispatched in protective packaging and sent out at close of play using Royal Mail recorded delivery. Places like “The Met” and Strathclyde returned the faulty item in a similar manner using pre-paid labels, the outstations returned theirs using the weekly UHF radio transport run. Obviously the Clerical Assistant (CA) and stores staff, who did a superb job, had to maintain a running ledger; tracking who owed what item
The arrival of VDU board repair meant the MU at Kippax was thankfully not swamped with the huge volume of handhelds, pagers and alerters that Cleeve endured. But their arrival created its own problem. Once a tech moved from handhelds to repairing logic boards they were reluctant to switch back and let someone else get a bite of the cherry. I was desperate to find middle ground and as we continued to expand, over time, we took on the module repair for the Burndept BE454 base station, which was a different animal altogether, Cyfas Vehicle Availability System (VAS) boards and eventually Pye RLA 3 boards followed. We also started to repair some VHF mobiles for Jim Luxton’s Special Services Team. Responsible for VIP and Royal Protection equipment meant they were very busy covering the active role and on occasions did not get time to fix spare sets.
At some point in time, I took the monumental decision to swap Dave and Phil over, giving them a day to cross brief each other on what they were doing. Steep learning curve for Dave but it was a case of: “light the blue touch paper and stand back” Being an avid reader, with a thirst for knowledge, he came up with the idea of replacing the Proms in the Delta Data with EPROMS. Up until then any software change required unsoldering and replacing like with like, which was expensive and time consuming. The new device could be used many times over and if used with plug in sockets would save a fortune in time and money. After prolonged software testing and checking temperature levels we also decided to reverse the fan action so that air assisted by natural convection, blew, out of the top air vent. This meant the fan ran cooler, any paper placed on the vent, got pushed off rather than sucked on which could restrict air flow causing over heating.
Waiting in the wings, we had a supplier who was happy to exchange our stock of proms for the new device as there was a world-wide shortage of that PROM. Confident with the results, we put the idea, to Bob Watt at PNCU who agreed to the proposal.
NAMU was now in a position to read, write and copy EPROMS and started to build a PROM library comprising master devices and written print outs in Hex. Wiping and programming became big business as by now all VHF mobiles were multi channel microprocessor based, all frequency information being stored on EPROM. Ultimately any frequency changes, which occurred regularly, on the new National Plans, were carried out at NAMU.
Three plans existed; blue, red and purple.
Blue; applied to routine policing using AM
Red; for RCS and Special Branch as they needed AM/FM in order to contact those forces with FM such as Lancs and others. The latter plan included two single frequency back to back channels for car to car work.
Purple; VIP and Royal Protection required AM/FM and covered Scottish forces and other channels reserved for their sole use.
The information and potential loss of data held eventually became so critical we had to install a large fire safe to ensure physical safety.
Bert Hare and Brian Wakefield were dispatched a few times to 22 SAS at Hereford to install new EPROMS, as the CT team and their pantechnicons also needed radio access to police control staff in the event of them attending an incident. The next purchase of mobiles utilised data fill boxes that reduced the volume of programming. NAMU actually installed a few radios in armoured Land Rovers, for Comacchio Group; Royal Marines whose role was to protect nuclear assets, saving the teams a trip to Harrow.
Manchester Fire contacted the MU, they were about to purchase a new fire appliance and wanted to add the new call sign to their ”lights on the wall” status display map. The original supplier had quoted a silly price and the Comms Officer wondered if we could assist. Dave Metcalf and I went over and took the system down, the operators resorting back to handheld slates and chalk, which was a regularly practised standby procedure. Dave copied data from every chip he could interrogate, on returning to Kippax he wallpapered the workshop walls with print outs, and eventually, the digital detective, found where the call signs were disguised and hidden. The new call sign was added successfully and some months later the brigade asked to add a further two appliances, this time it was easier as all the spade work had been done and documented.
Months passed, they then wanted to know if the system hardware, which we had no responsibility for, would last three years as a new HQ, control room and appliance availability system was in the planning. Short answer was no, the backplane was in good condition but the plug-in boards had taken some hammer, various modifications, broken track repairs etc. We suggested they approach the supplier for new boards, but the company were not interested. All circuit diagrams were checked for the various manufacturers’ modifications over the years and with the brigades approval we approached a company to re-design and build the PCBs using the latest computer design. The only stipulation; all IC, s had to have plug in sockets to reduce future needs to solder. Thankfully they all worked first time and the brigade were delighted and paid in full.
Not every day is a pay day so there was the odd run in here and there.
One occasion I decided to buy an Amstrad word processor, the first in the Directorate; I think, to replace the ageing already second hand typewriter the CA was enduring. All hell let loose with words like misappropriation of public funds being bandied about. It was confiscated on the grounds that I did not have a typist. Who did they think typed all the reports, letters, monthly stats and witness statements asking for financial restitution due to criminal damage?
A gold plating machine was bought to rejuvenate edge connecters that were wearing out. Despite assurances that its use would be closely monitored it, was also confiscated as it was suggested all the staff would end up with gold plated taps in their bathrooms.
NAMU was one of the locations involved with the initial testing and de-bugging of the Management Information System and I got saddled with writing the user manual so I ended up wallpapering the office with various printouts linking then via pins and thread. But I must say it was the best system I ever used, the computer people at Bootle did a fantastic job.
Over the years various senior police and fire officers came for a look around. One time Gordon Wasserman, now Lord Wasserman, was due for the grand tour. Dave Metcalf came and told me he had brought in a couple of pot plants to brighten up the workshop. Just before the big man arrived one of the technicians asked me if I was OK with the new vegetation and then went on to inform me that they were indeed cannabis “pot plants” that Dave had borrowed for a laugh! They disappeared quicker than they came in.Acknowledgement: George Ramsay