HomePreparednessThe Importance of a Radio Scanner

The importance of a radio scanner for situational awareness cannot be overstated.  During times of a true emergency this is one item that could save your life.  A radio scanner allows you to monitor many types of communication including police, fire, hospitals, HAM radio, weather alerts, and many more.  Even when you are not in an emergency, scanners are great asset.

What is a Radio Scanner?

So what is a radio scanner?  Very simply it is a receive only radio that is programmed with specific frequencies.  The scanner scans the frequencies and if activity is found on that frequency, the radio will stop scanning and let you listen to that radio traffic.  Normally when that activity finishes the radio continues scanning.

Most people who own scanners use them to listen to public safety in their own and surrounding communities.  To do this, the listener finds the frequencies they want to monitor (I have recommendations on how to do this later in this article)  and programs them into the radio.  Not only is it possible to listen to police and fire frequencies, but depending on your scanner, you can also tune into:

  • Aircraft
  • Ships
  • HAM radio
  • Hospitals
  • Weather radio
  • Public works
  • and many, many others

Basic Types

There are two basic types of scanners, handheld and mobile/base.

Handheld radio are exactly that, radios that you can hold in your hand.  Smaller and less powerful than mobile/base radios, they are meant to go with you wherever you go.  Handheld radios have a smaller antenna, which is normally referred to as a “rubber ducky”.  These types of antennas have a shorter range than larger, stationary base antennas.  That being said, it is possible to connect handheld radios to mobile or base antennas to increase their range.

Intended for more stationary use than handheld scanners, Mobile/Base scanners are larger in size and can be installed in a vehicle.  Given their size, mobile/base scanners tend to include more functionality and options.  External antennas are used with most base scanners giving them better range than a handheld scanners.

Computer Control

One of my favorite features available in certain models of both handheld and base scanners is computer control.  The scanner is connected to your computer and you basically run it from there.  The interface is usually better and it gives you even more features that aren’t available in the scanner itself.  For me this is a “must have” feature.

Transition to Digital

Over the past several years many public safety organization, mainly police, are transitioning over to digital communications.  For the scanner user this means that to listen to digital communications, you must have a digital scanner.  These are normally more expensive.

So how do you tell if you need a digital scanner?  Thankfully it is pretty easy using one of my favorite resources, radioreference.com.  In addition to having a great forums section, radioreference.com has a database of frequencies from all over.  When you do a search, in your search results it will tell you if it is digital or not.

Below is an example of a search that brought up the list of police frequencies for Boston, MA.  If you look in the mode column you will see the listing “NFM”.  This stands for Narrow Band FM.  This is not digital.

boston frequencies

On the other hand, look at the same search results from LA County in California.  The Mode is P25.  This is a digital mode and would require a digital scanner.

la frequencies

One final note regarding digital communication, it enables the user to encrypt their communication.  With encrypted communication, even if you have a digital scanner you will not be able to listen to the communication.  Unfortunately, more and more police departments are enabling this option.

An Alternative

An alternative to buying a radio scanner is using a web-based scanner.  Several web-based services allow you to listen to certain frequencies, but you are at their mercy.  You get what is there but nothing more.  You cannot program any frequencies.

These services are a good option for someone who is not sure they want to invest in a scanner and wants to see what it is like first.  Again, the only downside is that you are stuck with the frequencies that are available.

A benefit to these services is that you can listen to radio traffic outside of your area. Scanner range is not an issue.

I’ve tried a couple of these services but keep finding myself returning to Broadcastify.  This service is the easiest to use and the most frequencies available.  Broadcastify apps are available for both Android and IPhone.

Scanner Recommendations

You decided you want a scanner, now what?  Well, you could spend hours and hours researching scanners to find the best one for the money and features.  However, I’ve already done that for you.

I am currently in the market for a new scanner so I’ve done the research.  My criteria were price vs. feature set.  I recommend two non-digital scanners, one base and one handheld.  When I get a new scanner, it will be one of these.  More than likely it will be the base.

Below are my recommendations with a brief overview of the scanner:

The Uniden Bearcat 500 Channel Alpha Numeric Hand Held Radio Scanner with CTCSS and DCS (BC125AT) is a great little radio.

  • 500 channels which is more than enough for a scanner
  • Uses both rechargeable and standard batteries and even uses a USB cable for charging
  • Connects to PC for  programming and control
  • Free computer software from the manufacturer website
  • Displays text when a frequency is being listened to
  The Uniden BearTracker Mobile Tracking Scanner with GPS Support – Black (BCT15X) is probably my next scanner.  The feature set is so rich it is hard to believe you can get this radio for under $160.00.

  • 9,000 channels.
  • Programmable and controllable from PC
  • Comes with a PC cable which is an additional cost with most other scanners
  • Can connect to GPS for automatic scanning based on location
  • Preprogrammed for Highway Patrol, DOT, and local police in each state

Radio scanners are a great benefit during an emergency or even if it isn’t an emergency.  Knowing what different organizations around you are doing is always good.  The next time a couple police cars come through your neighborhood with lights and siren, you can turn on your scanner to find out what is going on.   I’ve done this for years and even have people asking me what is happening.  If you don’t have one, consider getting one.


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