There’s a lot of talk about using shortwave radio to gather disaster information but, as we stated in our Shortwave Radio article, the pertinent information available to you thru shortwave is limited. It’s not going to do you much good to know what’s going on in South America when you hear a large boom in the middle of the night or see police cruisers surrounding the house at the end of your street.
Recently, a large portion of our city’s downtown district was evacuated due to a massive gas leak. We were able to monitor the entire event, in almost perfect detail, on the scanner. We knew where the perimeter boundaries were located, where they were staging the evacuees and which buildings were requesting evacuation and inspection.
If you don’t own a scanner radio, I urge you to put it at the top of your preparedness supply list ASAP.
You might have heard that Public Service emergency communications have switched to digital and the analog scanners can no longer be used. In fact, the scanner salesmen are constantly (and mistakenly) reminding me of this whenever I browse their showroom hoping to see one of their scanners on sale. The good news is you don’t need a new digital scanner and here is why there is still plenty to gain by having an older model analog scanner on hand.
1) Many localities have not switched to the newer digital system, which is often called APCO25 or Project 25. For example, in our tri-county area, only one town out of the 6 that I monitor has made the switch.
2) Older analog equipment will be most likely be used in addition to digital equipment in a large scale emergency, especially if cellular service is compromised.
3) Many ambulance services, utility companies and businesses still use analog.
4) VHF and UHF local Ham radio still use analog and these ham frequencies will come alive when there is an emergency.
5) GMRS, FRS & MURS radio are still analog and can be monitored with a analog scanner radio.
Most scanners will scan the commonly used frequencies between 30 MHz and 900 MHz. This is more than adequate since most of the comms you will be needing to hear are around 150, 450 and 850 MHz. Some scanners will scan up to or beyond 1200 MHz. There will be some gaps in coverage due to FCC regulations and Federal laws that don’t allow eavesdropping on certain frequencies. Also, some frequencies in that range are used for scientific or commercial purposes and are used for other things besides voice communication.
All modern scanners are programmable. Most are still manually programmable (without the use of software) and that is my preference.. You’ll have to decide if the added step of using a laptop and cable to program your scanner is something you want to deal with.
Programmable scanners can have anywhere from 20-1000 channels stored into their memories. A channel is a specific frequency. I don’t know why the manufacturers insist on using the term “channel”. I have several scanners and have never needed more than 100 frequencies programmed into any of them.
Scanners will also have a feature called “banks”. Usually a bank can be programmed with 10 individual frequencies. A bank is an excellent way to organize groups of frequencies that can be turned on or off as needed. For example, the county police frequencies can be programmed into one bank and the county fire frequencies in another bank. If the fire department is called out, all other banks can be turned off so you can listen only to the fire department. I use this feature often on hometown football game days when I don’t want to have the scanner stopping every time the volunteer traffic police use the radio.
Another feature on many scanners is “Trunk Tracking” or “Trunking”. Some municipalities use several frequencies and “trunk” or bundle them together. Their equipment is designed to find the next available frequency if one or more is in use. A Trunk Tracking scanner can be programmed to find and follow a conversation as it switches frequencies.
Analog scanners are still available new for under $100.00 (even at Radio Shack!). Used scanners can be purchased for less than the price of a take-out pizza. They can often be found at HamFests, pawn shops and garage sales. I’ve purchased several from Ebay and have never had an problems. I would recommend staying away from the older “crystal” type scanners; crystal scanners are easily identified by the rows of red lights on their face.
Scanners are available as handheld models, mobile units that operate on 12VDC and base radios. I personally prefer the handheld models due to their size, weight and the fact that they can be powered by AA batteries, a 12VDC source or by AC adaptor.
New scanners that are available today can be purchased as analog-only models or as digital/analog. Scanners capable of receiving the latest encrypted digital traffic cost quite a bit more. Here’s one of the better digital models:
Uniden BCD436HP HomePatrol Series Digital Handheld Scanner
After you purchase your scanner you will need to know what frequencies to program into it and how to actually perform the programming. There are 3 ways to find the frequencies being used in your area:
1) Run the scanner and capture the frequencies as your scanner stops on them
2) Consult a scanner frequency database like RadioReference
3) New scanners will come with programming software and instructions.
No matter what, Make a cheat sheet with the programming instructions and keep it attached to your scanner.
If you are planning to buy a used radio, check the manufacturer’s website first to be sure the User Manual is still available for download. Don’t buy the scanner if you can’t find a manual for it .
You may find it necessary to add an external scanner antenna if you live in a fringe area or to improve your reception. The antennas supplied with today’s scanners are mostly sufficient but your scanner’s “range” can often be improved upon by using an elevated antenna. There’s no shortage of antenna options available. Centerfire Antenna, US Dipole and Shrike Antenna have several types to choose from. You should ALWAYS use a good grade of coax cable when connecting an external antenna to your scanner. Weak signals can actually be lost by coax that is not designed for the higher VHF and UHF frequencies. The best value in scanner coax is RG6 Television cable. It’s inexpensive and rated for UHF. Coax designed for CB radios is generally not suitable for scanner use.