Friday, September 3, 2010

Choosing the right radio scanner

A radio scanner is useful in all kinds of circumstances, but can be a critical information resource in a time of disaster as you are getting the information "from the source". However, there are many different radio systems and you have to choose the right scanner for your area and the kind of information you want to receive.

The first thing is to determine the legality of using a scanner in your area. Some countries outright ban listening to public safety radios with a scanner. Some U.S. states prohibit, for example, using a scanner in a car. Some allow it if you are an amateur radio operator. Checkout the online guide to state scanner laws as a start.

Next, make sure you really need a scanner. An increasing number of people are making scanner feeds available online, meaning you can listen in with just an internet-connected computer. There are even iPhone and mobile applications that let you listen to these feeds on your mobile device (such as EmergencyRadio). Check out one of the most popular feed sites for the U.S. on the RadioReference Audio Feeds page. If you do decide to go for a scanner, decide if you need a mobile scanner (fits in your car) or a handheld one. For most purposes, a handheld will be the most flexible

Next, check out the radio frequencies for your local county and area on RadioReference.  If the agencies you want to monitor use VHF or UHF frequencies (listed as or for instance), you can use a cheaper scanner such as the Uniden BC72XLT Handheld Scanner (Black) available for about $80. Many states are building statewide digital trunked systems (rather like cellphone networks but for two-way radios). If your agencies use a digital trunked system, you are going to need a more expensive scanner such as the Uniden BCD396XT, the Uniden BCD996XT, or the GRE PSR500  all of which cost around $500. These will generally be able to listen to all kinds of system (VHF, UHF, trunked, analog, digital) with the exception of encrypted radio traffic. Also check out a new kind of scanner: the Uniden HomePatrol-1.

Finally, program the frequencies into your scanner. With most scanners you can either program them by hand (using the keypad on the radio) or using a computer (sometimes you have to pay extra for the cable). Either way, it can be a bit tricky, so always search the web for hints on programming your particular scanner. Sometimes there are free or cheap software programs available on the web which are easier to use than the software provided by the scanner manufacturer.

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