Everything you wanted to know about digital police scanners and more!
By David Greeer
At KPA, we continue getting phone calls from journalists all around the state with questions about the nationwide conversion from conventional analog public safety communications (police, fire, EMS, etc.) to the more modern digital public safety systems. The conversion, which is at different stages from city to city across Kentucky, can be confusing, to say the least. We all know that listening to the scanner is a valuable tool for news gathering but these days that tool is changing, or in some cases, going silent — at least for a time.
In one city recently, local police, fire and EMS were converting to digital but when the local newspaper asked for the frequencies it should begin monitoring, authorities refused to divulge them. An open records request was made and the information finally handed over.
But such information is already public record at the federal level. All police, fire, EMS and other public safety radio systems in use all across the U.S. are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. As such, the FCC website has a large database showing all public safety radio frequencies in use nationwide on its fcc.gov website. However, the FCC’s website is not very user friendly and finding that info can be difficult.
Many Kentucky editors and publishers are already familiar with and are using instead an Internet website called Radio Reference. Its URL is www.radioreference.com. Click on this link http://www.radioreference.com/apps/db/?stid=21 and it will take you to the Kentucky page of the nationwide database. [For Arizona, use this link: http://www.radioreference.com/apps/db/?stid=4] Each town and city in the state is shown in a drop down box. Or you can click on your individual county and it displays the public safety frequencies in use in your county. Also available are frequencies used by various state agencies, the military and so on.
But with the conversion from analog FM transmissions to digital transmissions, just knowing a particular police department’s radio frequencies won’t guarantee you that you can decode their transmissions if they are digital. There are now several different types of digital public safety transmission modes in use in the state and while some of them can be received (like those from KSP), others cannot for now– but probably will in the future. (The mode of transmission and the frequency of that transmission are two different things. If you have the correct frequency, you will pick up signals on it but you might not be able to understand them. If digital, they may sound garbled or just be a burst of noise. You can buy police scanners now that decode KSP’s digital transmissions. They are part of the Motorola system. But now newer communications companies have entered the public safety market. They have names like Kenwood, Harris and Icom, to name a few. At present, their digital equipment produces voice transmissions that cannot be decoded by any scanners. That will likely change as the scanner manufacturers catch up to the marketplace but that could take a while. Months? Years? No one is certain just yet.
While we are at it, if your public safety people locally convert to digital, don’t toss your analog scanner yet. They are still good for picking other users of two-radio communications — security guards at local industries, school buses, game wardens, any business using two-way radios, etc. And monitoring these communications is legal and always been. But the caveat is if you listen in, you are not supposed to divulge what you heard. That’s why it’s important to always verify what you hear on a scanner from other sources and not just take info heard from a scanner and automatically insert it into a story or put on the web, etc. When i was editor in Elizabethtown and Bardstown, we monitored local school bus radio transmissions and got some good story info when accidents occurred, etc. We heard about attempted break-ins at Bardstown distilleries from the distillery security guards, etc. Other potential news sources use two-way radios — it’s not just cops, fire and EMS.
Also worth mentioning is that on the Kentucky page on radioreference.com is a list of state agencies that use two-way radio and that you can monitor — everything from the Dept. of Corrections to the Transportation Cabinet and everything in-between. For example, if I had a state prison in my town, I would want to monitor their radio frequencies. It could come in real handy sometime.
Also shown are military frequencies and a host of others. Too many to mention.
As an alternative to listening to a police scanner, some editors and their staffs are using a free app from iTunes called 5-0 Radio. You can install it on your iPhone or iPad and monitor police. I checked recently and found public safety listings from more than 70 Kentucky counties in the app’s database. While I have played with the app a bit, I haven’t used it much. I suspect it’s very dependent on scanner radio hobbyists to feed the audio from public safety transmissions in their communities to some central location. As such, it’s hard to know how reliable this method might be although the price is certainly right — free. And I don’t know if there is an Android version of this app for other smartphones.
If your local public safety people convert to digital and it’s a system that you cannot receive on a scanner, you might try asking them for an audio feed via the Internet or if they will loan or lease you a radio receiver that can receive their transmissions. They might or might not be receptive but I have heard of some newspapers trying this approach.
AND YOU CAN ALSO MONITOR LOTS OF OTHER AGENCIES
Also worth mentioning is that on the Kentucky page on radioreference.com is a list of state agencies that use two-way radio and that you can monitor — everything from the Dept. of Corrections to the Transportation Cabinet and everything in-between. For example, if I had a state prison in my town, I would want to monitor their radio frequencies. Could come in real handy sometime.