Scanners' drone is music to ears of these 'freeks'
Seattle Times staff reporter
He listens while cooking dinner, watching television and working in his garage.
And thanks to careful planning, Brian Preston was able to use one of his nearly 40 radio scanners to pick up his favorite channels on a recent family road trip to Long Beach, Pacific County, and Oregon.
Friends from his Internet-scanner talk groups sent lists of coastal frequencies, which Preston programmed in before leaving.
"I can just set a scanner in there (his car's hands-free scanner holder), screw on the car antenna, plug it into the cigarette lighter and away you go," he said.
Preston, a 35-year-old Moses Lake resident, is part of a nationwide community of scanner listeners who regularly tune in to law enforcement, fire, rescue, airport and even auto-racing pit-crew channels. Some within the subculture call themselves "scanner freeks" (named after the search for frequencies) or "scanner junkies."
But Preston says listening to the nation's radio waves isn't just for oddballs and the nerdy "pocket-protector crowd." He says it's a "wonderful hobby" for people who are curious about what's going on around them.
Preston prefers listening to police, fire and emergency channels. But there are countless types of scanner listeners.
Some are aspiring pilots who tune in to conversations between air traffic controllers and planes; others like tracking crews fighting wildfires or listening to emergency personnel.
For many who tune into police and fire channels, their fascination with scanners also involves a race to keep up with ever-improving technology used by those agencies.
Some scanner fans say law enforcement is trying to restrict access to everyday transmissions. But those in law enforcement, while saying they have nothing to hide, also speak of balancing the public's right to know with public safety.
A tour of Preston's home shows that he, not to mention his wife and four kids, rarely misses what's happening on local airwaves.
A handheld scanner positioned near his front door searches 10 local police, fire, sheriff's and emergency channels, as well as nearby airport and two-way radio communications. Preston keeps two other scanners in his living room next to the couch.
There's a handheld scanner broadcasting from his kitchen windowsill. Aging scanners and two-way radios cover his dining-room table.
In his bedroom, a pair of desktop scanners on his nightstand endlessly emit chatter.
Together with Preston's beloved country music, which he also plays through the night, the scanners fill the room with a perpetual symphony that is part chaos, part white-noise.
"I have these two on all night long while I'm sleeping," Preston said, gazing down at his bedside broadcast unit. "The noise doesn't even bother me. It bothers my wife, though."
Preston says he can't sleep in total silence and hates pitch-black darkness, and his humming scanners with their glowing backlights soothe him. In his back yard, there's a scanner and speaker mounted to the garage.
Eight antennas emerge from the roof of the Prestons' home, which he calls his "antenna farm."
Preston is a typical scanner "aficionado," says Rich Barnett, editor of Police Call frequency guide.
"Scanners are really a unique product," said Barnett, whose book celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. "A lot of customers just like to listen, but they're aficionados."
Barnett says many listeners who start as children develop a deep respect for law enforcement and radio, and may become officers or go into broadcasting.
He says listeners are often curious people who care about their neighborhoods and public safety.
Scanner sales surged after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and during Level Orange terror alerts, according to Paul Opitz of Uniden America, a leading scanner company.
But Barnett says the hobby has declined, as a whole, over the past five years as more people use the Internet to monitor local events.
Nobody seems to know for sure how many people are listening. Opitz estimates a half-million scanners are sold each year. And traffic on scanner Web sites and Internet talk groups, as well as sales of scanner publications, indicate there are hundreds of thousands of people monitoring the airwaves.
Local law-enforcement officers say they don't have a problem with most listeners.
But "the Catch 22 is if good, hard-working citizens are listening, then criminals who want to prey on them can be listening, too," Seattle Police Department spokesman Duane Fish said.
Fish says that in the mid-1990s, when his department switched to a new 800 megahertz trunked-radio system — which allows multiple stations and agencies to use the same radio channels — his department wasn't trying to block out the public.
But he acknowledges the complicated system is more difficult for scanner listeners to navigate.
Strict laws govern people monitoring the airwaves. According to the Communications Act of 1934, as amended by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, scanning is legal if it isn't used to commit crimes or for personal gain.
Intentionally listening to encrypted transmissions or mobile telephone calls is also a federal crime.
Some scanner fans think law enforcement is trying to block everyday radio transmissions. One Renton-based listener, Lois (who asked that her last name not be used), says law enforcement is making her hobby "impossible."
Lois, who often calls The Seattle Times with news tips she has heard on her scanner, says the region's complicated trunked-radio system limits the frequencies she can get and scrambles the few she can still hear.
Sgt. Kevin Fagerstrom, a King County Sheriff's Office spokesman, says avid listeners and those in the news media can cause trouble when they show up at crime scenes and get in the way, or if people drive to accident scenes to be "lookie-loos."
"We know that we're being monitored, and it's just a fact of life," he said. "We don't do anything to disguise ourselves."
Duane Anderson, author of Oregon Scanner Guides and an avid listener in Bend, Ore., said he serves as a watchdog for his community.
He once helped officers find a drunken driver who passed him on the road, he said, because he was listening to his car's scanner and heard police looking for the man in the wrong part of town.
"To me, that's what it's all about. Helping out," Anderson, 35, said. "Whether it's a drunk driver, a missing child, or a wildfire."
Many describe scanner listening as more than a hobby. "It's not a job. It's an avocation, it's a way of life," said Mike McKenna, a professional scanner programmer. "Other people don't understand that communication can solve a lot of problems. It can better our lives."
McKenna, 54, says obnoxious "scanner freeks," whom he calls the "paparazzi of scanners," and criminals who try to abuse the equipment shouldn't ruin the image of listeners who want to be "responsible citizens, not nosy neighbors."
Brian Preston says his co-workers at the Wilbur-Ellis Co. chemical warehouse appreciate that anytime they hear sirens close by, he can go to his car and tell them what's happening.
"Everybody who knows me knows I'm just a bit eccentric," he said. "There's just so much going on all the time, it's relaxing to hear what's happening around me."
Preston, who completed a citizen sheriff's academy last year, might consider law enforcement — if he ever leaves his job as a manager at Wilbur-Ellis. Now, he just has to convince his family to keep tolerating his habit.
"They're always noisy," his 5-year-old daughter, Callie, said of the scanners. "Dad turns them on when we're sleeping even!"
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company