Amateur radio scanners are commonly called police scanners. A scanner is capable of receiving multiple transmissions from almost any two-way radio communication. Since two-way communication is intermittent, a scanner stops on any channel in use and continues monitoring other channels once the communication stops. Radio scanners might pick up communication from police, first responders, aircraft, train engineers, taxi drivers, truckers, or even military training exercises if not on a secured channel.
In the early 1900s, police departments communicated using an AM radio frequency that could be monitored on a typical tunable radio by searching the channels at the very end of the dial. Later, in the mid-1960s, police communication moved to FM frequencies between 40 to 155 MHz. Amateur radio scanners first came into use during this time. These early scanners required special crystals for each specific frequency that you wished to monitor. Typical scanners in the 1960s were capable of scanning between four and eight channels. Following today’s technology, you can now use your computer to program amateur radio scanners and listen to hundreds of channels.
The type of radio scanner you need to monitor your local police communications depends on what system your community uses to communicate with their mobile units. An inexpensive basic scanner works well but will not have digital displays for alpha tags or a pc port to program it through a computer. For your first scanner an inexpensive model is easy to program and should pick up local police and fire transmissions unless your community uses an advanced system that would require a more expensive scanner. Your scanner must be programed to receive the transmissions you desire to monitor. Consult your owner’s manual for the scanner you purchase for instructions on programing your scanner. There are guides to local and national radio frequencies online. From a basic scanner to digital, the scanner that is right for you depends on your location, the radio systems you wish to monitor and personal preference. Listed below is a brief overview of the types of amateur radio scanners available.
Base/Mobile Scanners – Base /Mobile scanners may be one of two types of scanner. Desktop models are large and generally are difficult to move or use in a car or recreational vehicles. Base mobile scanners, as the name implies, are smaller, easier to transport, and are designed for use either at a base location or in a vehicle. Base mobile scanners are often designed to fit into the areas of a vehicle dash where you normally would house a CD player or stereo. They may also be mounted under the dash on brackets. Some models come with an adapter allowing you to use it as a portable radio scanner.
Portable Scanners – While some mobile scanners may be portable, there are radio scanners designed for portability. These are commonly known as police scanners. Portable scanners are easy to use and can go anywhere you want to carry them. Most portable police-type scanners have AC adapters so you can save battery use when home. Some portable scanners are pre-programed so you are ready to put them to use without programing hassles. Hand-held scanners are the typical portable scanner in use.
Pre-Programmed Scanners – Pre-programmed scanners use the Radio Reference frequency database and include free updates from the website. You can purchase pre-programed scanners that are only analog with trunking, but these will not be able to handle APCO-25 digital. Newer models may offer pre-programed analog as well as digital trunking, be sure to research the model scanner you are considering and ask someone with experience what scanner will work for the frequencies and types of calls you wish to monitor.
Trunking Scanners – Trunking radio systems allow communities or agencies to provide a large number of groups to share a small number of radio frequencies. A trunking scanner can monitor regular radio systems but a scanner designed only for regular radio systems cannot scan a trunking system. Always be aware of the features and limitations of any scanner you are considering.
Digital scanners – While digital scanners can cost more than a basic standard scanner, a digital scanner offers the most versatility. With a digital scanner, you can monitor both analog and digital radio systems as well as standard or trunking radio systems.
Radio scanners are a popular way for people to stay informed of events within a community. Amateur radio enthusiasts and professionals alike use scanners to hear first-hand news. Police departments and other emergency services often use scanners to monitor activity in other counties in case assistance or backup is needed during a widespread emergency such as severe weather or fires. News media and personnel also monitor radio communications to stay informed of breaking news. Thousands of everyday people use scanners for information and entertainment.
As previously mentioned, after deciding which scanner is best for monitoring the communications in your area, you will need to program your scanner unless you have purchased a pre-programmed model. Once frequencies are programmed, you can begin your search of channels to monitor. Your scanner should include a listing of commonly used frequencies to give you an idea of what you will be hearing. You can then set your scanner to automatically search for active channels or choose what channel you wish to listen to when you hear something of interest. The area your scanner can cover will depend on many factors such as antenna, distance, and even weather conditions. It will take some experimenting and trial and error to find what works best in your situation and makes amateur radio interesting and fun!
Broadcast Band Monitoring (BCB) is listening to commercial radio stations that you would not normally find on your local radio stations. Upgrading your equipment, and watching weather conditions can help you tune in to stations thousands of miles away under the right conditions. This is a hobby for night owls as the sun must be down to pick up signals across such long distances. Another broadcast listening option is to monitor shortwave broadcasts. Some hobbyists collect QSL cards from short-wave broadcasting stations that send them in return for providing feedback about the date, time, frequency, signal strength and quality, and programming. This information helps stations evaluate the efficiency of their equipment.
In general, it is legal to own a radio scanner and monitor communications. The exceptions involve privacy issues, secured channels, or using scanners with criminal intent or purpose. Several states have restrictions or laws concerning the use of mobile scanners in vehicles. It is illegal to intercept or monitor cell phone conversations or encoded messages. You do not need a license to own or use a scanner, though after monitoring transmissions, you may wish to explore becoming an amateur radio operator (HAM radio), and for that you will need a license.
Kids of any age can enjoy listening to an amateur radio scanner. Radio communication can introduce kids to other countries and culture, reveal an inside understanding of the type of situation police and emergency personnel respond to on a daily basis and may form the basis for a lifetime hobby! While parents may wish to limit what very young children listen to on a scanner, most children easily become captivated by the excitement of hearing an actual police chase or firemen calling for backup and equipment while battling a fire. This stirs the imagination and gives them an on-the-scene peek into the challenges these individuals face daily. This can help build understanding and respect for the people that put their lives on the line to keep us all safe.
Public safety officials can broadcast emergency information across various radio signals to alert the public to emergency storm warnings, road closings involving delays due to crashes or unsafe road conditions, or other safety issues. Some communities also use radio communication to enlist the aid from the public to find missing children such as making Amber alert announcements describing suspect vehicle and tag information. You can monitor many public safety radio broadcasts on scanners and online using your computer.