Police Scanning 
in the New World

by Roger Williams

As journalists, we are in the business of gathering and disseminating abroad spectrum of information to the public. What I want to talk aboutis one of the tools used to obtain raw information in the form of leadsand directions: the police scanner.

In his police-novel series about the 1970s era in Philadelphia, Badge of Honor, author W.E.B. Griffin has his hero, a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaperman, using his scanner to follow the police department's special enforcement units as they work their way through the most complex cases. This is the scanner in typical use to answer thequestions: who, what, when, where....

Journalists have used police scanning devices for several decades to listen to police, as well as fire departments, and a host of other radio transmissions---literally eavesdropping on the daily business of public servants. Neither I nor my colleagues listen to cellularor cordless phone conversations to provide us with information, but perhaps someone is listening---because it's there.

How do we use this tool? What equipment is involved? How are the public service organizations, the one's we listen to, trying to thwart our use of thepublic airways to gather the information we need?

For some time, simple crystal radios were used to listen to the limited numbers of frequencies available for public service radio transmission. Then, as technology grew and the numbers of frequencies available multiplied, the "programmable" scanning radio was developed to enable the user to access police and fire departments, the FBI, and even allow us to listen to each other. "What is Jerry from CNN doing over there?" Well, he's on his radio, and I have his frequency (every good journalist better beprepared). We can always use a new type of miniature frequency counter to find Jerry,but better to be prepared---know it.

With a short-range scanning counter you can locate the transmission frequency of a nearby radio, and with a short-range transceiver, you can communicate with your organization and others. Some journalists have become extremely competent in the use of the police scanning radio. A photojournalist I know is so competent in themethodology described that many around himwonder how he gets and relays his information so quickly.

Recently, in places around the country, the police and fire departments, as well as other organizations, have nearly disappeared from the airways. We now listen to a sentence of police talk, rapidly replaced by the dog catcher, then the fire guys come on, only to be replaced by the water department. "Hey I paid $300 for my scanner and it doesn't work right anymore." What happened?

What happened is called "trunking." Throughout the country police and firedepartments, and others are going to a "shared frequency," computer controlledsystem that provides more frequencies for the dollar and semi-scramblesto thwart the eavesdropper.

Technically, trunking is a method of using a small number of frequencies for a large number of users. It also makes it difficult to listen to for more than a moment or two before switching out to a new frequency. There may be onlytwo or three runways at an airport, but a number of planes can use them if there is a controlled method of sharing. We don't need a runway set aside for each plane, but we do need to control who is to use a runway, and when, to avoid collisions.

Trunking created a real problem for scanner listeners until the recent adventof the "trunk tracker." However, ownership of a trunk tracker does notmean you can listen to what you want. Now, you are no longer scanningfrequencies, so you can no longer search to find out what frequencies the police, etc. are "hiding" on and note them for future use. A way must be found toseparate police from fire, fire from dog catcher, all of which are sharing the frequencies.

The trunk tracker listens to a computer generated series of control tones usually put on a single frequency within the number of frequencies used in a trunk system. These tones move the user around to the next available frequency within the system. The transmitter is assigned to one of these systems (called "talk-groups"), and the computer moves it around. As far as the talker and listener are concerned they are the only ones there, since there is no interference as they move from frequency to frequency. Great for them, but where are we in this scenario?

With a trunk tracker, you have to program the entire set of frequencies into the radio, and then forget about frequencies. It's the talk-groupswe will listen to. The problem is how to acquire the talk-groups we need, and how to set them into the trunk tracker. The talk-groups are put into thechannels of the trunk tracker in groups of up to ten called "talk-lists." Most trunk tracking devices can have up to five lists per bank , with ten banks, providing us with the possibility of up to 500 talk-groups in a single unit.

In most areas of the country, counties are using one system of frequencies, and cities are using another system.

So we must have units with as many talk-group listening spaces as possible. Eventually,many trunking devices will be placed on the market with fewer talk-groupspaces, however, we need as many talk-group spaces as possible. Journalists in some areas are usingmore than one trunk tracker because they have already been overloaded bythe numbers of talk-groups and systems in asingle region.

Where do we get the talk-group numbers from? We can do the following: place the entire set of frequencies into the unit, and then search the entire trunk system, listening, identifying, and setting aside those talk-groups we want to keep. Or, we can use the Web and look under "trunk tracking" to obtain the information needed. In some areas, groups of people are forming loose-knit information sharing groups.

At the higher "techie" end, we can hook a computer to a desk-type Uniden 895xlt, using available software, and provide ourselves with the talk-groups as they come up. This is the only sure way now available to get every talk-group.

The days of simple frequency monitoring, as depicted in the books by W.E.B. Griffin, are over. More and more areas will convert to trunking because it is less expensive in the long run, and more secure. Our job as journalists is to provide ourselves and ultimately the public with information.  The reward is that once we conquer a trunk system, the "listening" is complete. We can listen to everything in the trunk. Tactical units, detectives, swat teams, all share the trunk, and we can listen to them all---no exceptions. It's well worth learning how to keep up with advances in these systems.

You are welcome to email me at TheDigital Journalist (Roger.W@ix.netcom.com), and any questions you have about these systems will be answered.

Contents PageColumns Contents

Contents Editorial The Platypus Links Copyright
Past Features Camera Corner War Stories  Dirck's Gallery Comments
Issue Archives Columns Forums Mailing List E-Mail

This site is sponsored and powered by Hewlett Packard