Great article originally appearing on Signal Corps Ministry. – NCS
People who use scanners get a bad rap, stereotypes ranging from wanna-be super heroes to vigilantes. Like any tool, how it is used is its defining characteristic. A scanner is a radio receiver that is designed to store programmed frequencies and scroll through them constantly. When there is an active transmission on a programmed frequency, the scanner stops scanning and receives the traffic, then resumes scanning either immediately or after a set pause to allow for ongoing traffic. This is an excellent tool to monitor many radio users from public safety, to amateur radio operators, to telemetery signals and emergency and weather alerts. If you reference the “Frequency Spectrum” files under this site’s resource library, you can see the myriad user agencies of radios. Your basic scanner won’t cover the whole spectrum but depending on the model you buy and its features, a newer model scanner will cover from 25Mhz to 1200Mhz which is more than enough to be very useful. A typical feature of scanners new and old is how the programmed frequencies are stored in the memory, which can facilitate listening for a specific type of transmission, a type of agency, or a user selected group of frequencies.
When I briefly lived on the Colville Reservation, everyone it seemed had a scanner. I saw how the community supported itself by monitoring for traffic, and could quickly render aid, respond to assist, or simply know when one is being called. This was before cell phones so the common technology was 2 meter amateur radio, public safety radio, and C.B.’s. (and crystals determined what frequencies you could use, not your fancy modern radios with variable frequency oscillators!) The topography varied so there was rarely any traffic that wasn’t nearby if one was receiving it. Given the nature of Tribal governance and the close knit community it was likely the game warden, police officer, utilities, or other public servant at work was a friend or relative and if he or she was in trouble or simply need a hand, a quick call on the radio would get a response. Fresh road kill was always a welcome gift of fresh meat, and if you knew it would be your turn next, keeping in touch with the game warden was particularly fruitful result of having a scanner. Getting stuck in the snow (which took some humility to make a call for help) or dealing with a bear or moose that was not letting someone get on with their day because it decided to park itself in the road, or a creek was too high to get out for groceries, having a radio and likely more than a few people listening was just how things got done. This is how things will get done if there’s no cell service or internet, or someone lives a lifestyle where those things are considered optional and undesirable (ahem).
There are many models of scanners out there, and while many of them are viable options, I have only used Unidens, some old Radio Shacks, and sometimes an odd off brand someone got a hold of and showed me. There are handheld models and mobile/base models. Incidentally, the 2 meter amateur radios can be set to scan programmed frequencies in the public safety band and can serve a dual purpose if one is authorized to use non-amateur frequencies or simply for listening. The act of scanning programmed frequencies is a feature on many radios, while a scanner radio is specifically a radio receiver designed solely to efficiently monitor and receive traffic.
Some legalities to be aware of. Look up scanner use statutes for the country/state/province/ county/city/parish/reservation et al where you live as they vary widely. In the U.S. some states don’t allow a scanner to be used in a vehicle with no exceptions, or if you’re a convicted felon. In most places the use of a scanner in any conjunction with a crime is an automatic felony, and this includes relaying information from a scanner to another party who is committing a crime. If I’m remembering correctly, Canada does not allow use of scanners unless you’re a licensed (amateur) radio operator. Re-broadcasting scanner traffic in real time is often illegal, so scanner apps and websites that feature scanner traffic have a programmed delay in their transmission of scanner traffic. The popular site Broadcastify can be useful, especially if you want to monitor events on the ground somewhere far from your location. Again, not only are they not in real time (a 30 second delay in addition to the latency of a online audio feed) but I have found that during highly visible events like protests, riots, political conventions, etc. that the traffic you hear through Broadcastify can be a looped recording varying from 30 minutes to several hours. That is fine if you’re a casual spectator, but useless if you’re using the site for situational awareness for personal safety. Having your own scanner is far better for awareness and use in your community. In many places it is unlawful to ‘respond’ to a location where law enforcement or first responders are dispatched that you hear on the scanner, but in my view it is always highly unethical and irresponsible unless you have an objectively valid interest. If you don’t work/volunteer for the responding agency, don’t go to a call thinking you’re going to help. You’ll likely cause a problem at least for yourself, if not for the people who are actively involved. This is obviously different from using a scanner to monitor and respond to aid from other members in the community who are looking for you to respond, such as a call from a friend on their 2 meter ham radio, C.B. or GMRS/FRS radio.
Programming a scanner is the most common barrier to a new user. Primarily a scanner has to be programmed with frequencies for it to scan. Increasingly scanners can come pre-programmed for your area, and some have a ‘search and store’ feature which will scan a band (e.g. the public safety band) and store frequencies that it receives. Then once you’ve collected some frequencies, you can set the scanner to scan just them. The best option for scanner programming is to get the usb cable that is more and more often an option with purchasing a scanner, and using the proprietary software or other programming software that is available online. I use ProScan with my Uniden Bearcat BCD996P2 and RadioReference to program my scanner. (These are the sites and hardware I have used and can recommend, there are many other options available but don’t have familiarity with them). The ‘search and store’ feature can be used to scan a band for rare and unpublished frequencies too.
Most scanners come with a AC wall wart power supply. They usually can be wired for vehicle use too, much the same as a C.B. as they are 12 volt DC as well. The last component, and equally important one, is the antenna. For public safety frequencies, amateur radio frequencies, and most frequencies that common scanners can monitor, a good receiving antenna is a must. Line of sight is still the determining factor in getting good reception. That means getting it as high as one can for your circumstances. For a home/base scanner, a discone antenna is a great option. For a vehicle, there are myriad options which an internet search will surely overwhelm you with options.
There is much more to scanners and using radios to scan to come, but hopefully this is good primer to start the new-comer off. As always, the tool is only as effective as the user, and can only be beneficial with practice, ethical use, and what ultimately God has called you to do. In all things seek guidance through prayer and fellowship, with humility and a servants heart.