In the Know in My AO

As the winter of 2014-15 was winding down, I identified a major gap in my preps. It started with a midday phone call from Brother Harold. That was strange right off the bat – we rarely communicate by phone, and almost never in the middle of the day. Turns out he was stuck in traffic with state and local police cruisers flying past him, and he wanted to know if there was anything big going on that he should know about.

Now, Brother Harold knows I’m a radio geek – have been all my life. Some of my earliest memories are being in my dad’s cruiser – he’s a retired state cop – and listening to the radio. I’d listen to the calls and ask what the various codes meant; I vividly recall reading through his booklet with all the codes for various crimes and asking, “Dad, what does ‘sod-o-my’ mean?” Awkward.

Anyway, I’ve literally been listening to public service radio all my life, whether in my dad’s car, or later on any one of a variety of scanners that I’ve owned, or even as a public service employee myself, either in an ambulance or fire truck or on the desk in any of the three different dispatching jobs that I’ve had. I even used to install land-mobile radios in vehicles, just for fun. Remember – geek.

So when Harold called, he fully expected me to have access to real time information from the field at my fingertips. Sadly, though, I was asleep at the switch. My only scanner at the time was a crappy unit in my truck, and I was in my office, deaf as a post to the world around me. But I did have access to scanner feeds on my phone through a great app called Scanner Radio – it allows you to select feeds provided my like-minded radio geeks from around the world and listen to them in nearly real time (they set up a 30 second or so delay to avoid legal problems, and strictly control what feed owners can broadcast.) With some difficulty, I finally found a fire department feed from the area he was in and started listening in. Harold was concerned with the number of first responders he saw and the fact that they were all headed toward the local high school, but it turned out to be more mundane – a car accident up ahead of him that he was able to work around.

Or maybe not so mundane. News stories later in the day revealed that the accident was the climax of a car chase across the state, which started with a bank robbery – about 3 miles from my house! I had no clue what was going on in my own town, despite having a feed on my phone from the local fire and EMS outfits – the PD had recently changed to a new frequency with digital radios, and the feed owner had not yet updated his gear. To add insult to injury, a few days later, some guy in town opted for a really messy divorce by shooting his wife and then setting fire to their house, setting off a SWAT/Fire/EMS incident with FBI, news media, helicopters – the works. And I didn’t have a clue.

BCD996P2I decided right then that having such a bad blind – er, deaf – spot was a serious detriment to preparedness. I’ve had issues before with this, including local LEOs wandering in the woods a few miles from my home with ARs without me knowing. It was time to apply a fix, and since I’m a gear whore as well as a radio geek, that meant buying a new scanner. I opted for a Uniden Bearcat BCD996P2, a scanner that can receive pretty much everything from 25MHz to 1.3GHz. It also decode half a dozen different digital systems and can be used with trunked systems, which use pools of frequencies shared between multiple agencies.

Two problems with this radio that I discovered right off the bat. First, it was released only the week before I bought it, so I was a very early adopter. There were no online reviews available, I couldn’t find any manuals posted, and nobody on the scanner forums had much to say about them yet. The second problem was that it was nearly impossible to understand the manual that came with it. This appears to be typical of Uniden scanners, so much so that there are website devoted to “fan-manuals” that try to decode the factory manual and make it more approachable. Honestly, there are very few things I haven’t been able to figure out how to program in my life, but this radio was one of them. Luckily there’s a freeware app out there that makes programming trivial.

I was amazed by the things I was hearing once I got the radio programmed. I never knew how busy my little corner of the state was, from a public safety standpoint. Even the crappy little whip antenna that came with the scanner was picking up all kinds of stuff, including the digital trunked system used by all the state agencies – state police, marshals, corrections, environmental police. The last is especially useful in an area crawling with bears.

But the real situational awareness win was getting back to hearing the local PD. I had forgotten how rich a stream of information that is. Very little happens in this town that doesn’t make it on the air at some point. It seems like people will call the police for nearly anything – if two people can get along for any reason, send a cop. Kind of sad, actually – can’t we all just get along?

The big action these days, though, is on the fire frequencies. We haven’t had any appreciable rain in quite a few weeks, and the brush is bone dry. The city fire department is staying right on top of it, going to every reported case of outside burning and putting them out, even if it’s a little weenie roast that’s not in a grill. Seems extreme, but when they also go to half a dozen or more brush fires in a day, is a city that’s surrounded by thick, second-growth forests, it makes sense. And living in one such forest, I appreciate the approach. In fact, we’re keeping the scanner on at all times, just to get a heads up if any fires start near us. A few minutes warning might make the difference in a rapid bug out situation.

The ambulance calls have been fascinating, too. By far the biggest class of calls are for “psychiatric emergencies,” often for kids as young as six. Seems like the bar is set very low for what kind of behavior is tolerated these days – what passed for a temper tantrum in my days is now a mental health crisis that gets the cops to respond to “clear the scene” before the ambulance crew is allowed in. The offender is then carted off to the emergency room for an “evaluation.” No idea what happens then, but it can’t be good to have a record of mental hygiene issues.

So with this new set of ears, I finally feel much better connected to happenings in my AO. And beyond, too – a better antenna mounted high outside will pull in more transmissions, and with linked repeater systems like those for the state agencies and the area CMED system, I can listen in on the events covering over a thousand square miles and the lives of 200,000 or so people. If anything major happens, I’ll probably know.

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