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Scanning the hidden world of two-way radio

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January 5th, 2016
radio waves
radio waves

There’s always been something fascinating about listening to the two-way radio transmissions of our public servants: police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and the military. Whatever the listener’s motivation—whether professional, for information purposes, or just plain entertainment—millions of Americans tune in every day using a piece of equipment called a “scanner.”

A scanner is essentially a radio receiver that literally scans various frequency bands in search of a signal. Of course, the technology that makes this possible has evolved quite a bit over the years.

The scanners that first emerged as popular consumer items in the early 1970s were primitive and extremely limited. Typically, they supported anywhere from 4 to 10 channels, each one requiring a designated tuning crystal to receive a signal. 

If you wanted to listen to your local police, you would go to a radio supply shop and buy that particular tuning crystal. The same process applied to the other public services like fire and paramedics. 

When trolling the airwaves, the scanner would cycle through this chain of crystals, stopping whenever it found a signal.

By the late 1970s, programmable units became available. Equipped with a keypad and small digital screen, these scanners enabled users to enter a frequency, tune in, and save it in a memory bank. 

“In the late 70s into the 80s, scanners began to resemble what we currently use,” says Wayne Wilson, vice president of scanners for the Whistler Group, a leading mobile electronics manufacturer. “The programmable units eventually led to models that were capable of scanning hundreds of frequencies very quickly, thanks to the computer chip.”

Analog to digital

Digital technology has altered two-way radio communications as much as it has movies, music, and television. Many public agencies—state and federal—have transitioned from analog to digital voice transmissions and use a computer-controlled channel framework called a “trunking system.”

Simply put, a trunked system consolidates and streamlines the sending and receiving of voice broadcasts. This gives those with trunk-tracking scanners a real advantage in the way of control.

It allows you to search frequencies and tune your scanner with surgical precision, targeting a certain city or county, a department within that region (i.e., police, fire, etc.), and every channel that falls within the scope of that department.

Let’s say you live in southern Pennsylvania. You may want to scan for police activity in Bucks County or all emergency services within Bucks County. With today’s equipment, you can do exactly that.

“Especially compared to the 1970s, modern scanner users have significantly greater control over what they search for and receive,” says Wilson. “At Whistler, we’re mindful of that in our developmental efforts because we want our customers to get the most out of this equipment.”

Early weather warnings

For example, Whistler’s newest scanners—the WS1098 (desktop) and WS1088 (handheld)—include handy, one-touch features such as a dedicated weather button, offering quick access to frequencies used by storm spotter networks and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather reports.

“When you get your weather reports over the scanner by way of the SKYWARN system or NOAA, you’re probably getting it well before people who don’t have scanners,” says Wilson. “If you live in Texas like me or anywhere else that gets tornadoes, you know how important prompt warning can be.”

From the humble roots of a rudimentary radio receiver and a handful of channels grew an advanced, computerized system with seemingly limitless applications. If there’s a two-way radio within range, chances are, cutting-edge scanners like the WS1088 and 1098 will find it.

And that’s why so many people use them.

According to Wilson, Whistler’s customer base runs the gamut from retired firefighters and policemen to auto racing fans who want to listen to the pit crews. Journalists, too, use scanners to pinpoint breaking news.

In addition to police, fire, and other emergency services, the scanners of today can tune in to air traffic control, military base communications, railroads, school buses, HAM radio broadcasts, marine vessels, even mall security.

Naturally, the scanner that you choose and the price you’re willing to pay depend largely on what you want to hear. The most comprehensive models can cost upward of $700; however, in the rapidly changing digital realm, these units also remain technologically relevant much longer than their $200 to $300 counterparts.  

But regardless of the price tag, the scanners available on the market today are all light years ahead of their crystal-driven forbearers.

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Scanner prices

The price of scanners varies depending on a unit’s features and capabilities. Here are some examples from the Whistler Group’s product line:

The WS1025 base model is an analog scanner for the casual listener who wants to troll the basic services (police, fire, etc.). The technological longevity of this unit is limited as more systems switch to digital, but at $139.95, it will have you surfing the airwaves without emptying your wallet. 

The WS1010 is the handheld equivalent of the WS1025. It’s portable, functional, and moderately priced at $139.95.

The WS1098 and its portable counterpart, the WS1088, are Whistler’s newest and most advanced scanners. Designed with ease of use in mind, these units can receive analog and digital transmissions. Among their many features is a record function that allows users to save broadcasts as Windows-compatible audio files. WS1098 costs $679.95, and WS1088 costs $599.95.

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