Determine the type of radio system your local town and county uses
Most communities still use basic radio systems that can be "scanned" using low-end/inexpensive scanners. A low-end scanner though will not have the features, such as alpha-tagging (allowing the scanner to display "Chicago Fire" rather than a frequency) or a PC port, that can be very useful. Your community or region may also use advanced radio systems which will require a more expensive scanner. To learn if the communications in your region require you buy an advanced scanner use the Choose A Scanner tool on this site.
Scanners can seem complicated at first, but the low-end models, in particular, are very easy to use. When buying for personal use or as a gift, try to keep it simple by programming and listening to the police and fire department for your own community and perhaps some surrounding communities. Then, as you get more familiar with scanning you can broaden your listening if you desire.
Visit this page to read many real life stories of people in every day situations that describe why they decided to buy a scanner and the many ways they were used.
Programming Your Scanner
You must program the local police and fire department frequencies of course before you begin listening. This is akin to entering your favorite AM-FM radio station, but there are a lot more public safety frequencies to choose from. There are a few ways to go about programming your scanner. First, you can buy one of our frequency guides to program the radios yourself. After reading the scanner owner's manual to understand the programming process, you look up the frequencies and the trunking system details in our book and then enter the information into the radio. Some web sites also maintain this data. The frequency guides offer a wealth of information on all sorts of public and private entities that use radio including police, fire, EMS, DOT, DPW, fire towers, railroads, utilities, colleges, malls, auto racing and so much more. If learning the programming process and finding the frequencies doesn't appeal to you, you can have Scanner Master program your scanner.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How far will I be able to listen?
Distance depends on too many factors to provide an easy answer, such as the elevation of your home, whether there are hills or other obstructions between you and the agency you wish to monitor; the transmitter power of the agency you wish to listen to, etc. These and other factors all play a part. Generally speaking, with a handheld or desktop scanner you can hear in a 10 to 20 mile radius, but that's not set in stone.
What is Trunking?
As public safety agencies and businesses grow they require more and more radio frequencies for their operations, consequently available radio spectrum has become more valuable and more difficult to find. To help resolve this problem, radio manufacturers developed "trunking" which works on the same principle as a trunk telephone line. Let's take for an example the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. This mid-size city used to have two or three frequencies for the police department and two or three for the fire department as well as one for public works and one for parks. Now, with their trunking radio system, they have upwards of 50 or 100 groups of users on 10 radio frequencies. Here's a listing of just some of their "talkgroups":
04-041 Fire Ops A North
One of the frequencies in the system is the "control" or "data" channel, continuously broadcasting a stream of computer data that sounds like a buzzsaw over the air. Every time a police officer, a firefighter or a sanitation worker presses his microphone button an instantaneous computer command is sent out to all the other users within that person's radio group to move to one of the nine available voice frequencies in the system. The channel the group is assigned is almost completely random so there's no way to follow a communication unless you have a trunking scanner that works on a principle similar to that of the actual two-way radio. Hence, the TrunkTracker. One moment an officer in the police east side traffic division may be calling his dispatcher on one of the nine frequencies, and seconds later that dispatcher may reply to that officer on a completely different frequency. So now, a small group of radio users, such as the Water Filtration division, can effectively have their own radio channel. It's not a frequency per se, just any one of the 9 available radio frequencies as long as it's not in use by another talk-group of users.
The two major types of trunking systems are manufactured by Motorola and by M/A-COM (known as EDACS). A popular business trunking technology is known as LTR. Most, but not all, public safety trunking systems operate on the 800 MHz band. As the technology has evolved over time, each manufacturer has some different flavors of their trunking system. With Motorola you'll hear about Type I, Type II and IIi. Type I requires something called a fleet map to work properly (although these systems are gradually being phased out). EDACS has narrowband, wideband and SCAT. There are a number of LTR style systems, including one known as MultiNet for public safety (there is no scanner today that can track it) and Passport which is primarily for business communications. There is also some encryption on these systems which makes it impossible to monitor. All of it sounds very complicated and it can be, but here we specialize in providing you with the information to make it easier to set up trunking for your area and once it's done right it may never have to be touched again. Note: EDACS, MultiNet and Passport are trademarks of their manufacturers.
Trunking systems can be complicated to program for novices (although our Butel software makes programming much easier), but you'll find that scanning these trunked systems to be more pleasurable, interesting and informative than ever before. You can hear both sides of a conversation and you can listen in to just those groups which interest you.