How to use a mobile phone as a scanner

By PRISCILLA LOEBENBERG

Texas Press Association (originally published Dec. 2015 in the Texas Press Messenger)

Police and fire radio scanners have long been a staple of newsrooms. However, over the last decade, police and fire departments and other emergency responders have been upgrading from traditional analog transmissions to digital systems. The change has left some journalists wondering how to follow along and if their newspaper should purchase an expensive digital scanner.

First of all, it is important to know a digital scanner purchase may not be necessary to receive digital transmissions. Many digital signals can be picked up on a desktop computer or mobile phone. Broadcastify.com lists over 5,000 digital audio streams available for free. Sort the list by state and county to find local agencies.

Broadcastify’s premium subscription members (at a cost of about $30 a year) also have access to online archives of broadcast recordings.

Many scanner apps are also free for Apple or Android smartphones. A quick search for “police scanner” on the iPhone App Store yields at least a dozen apps. The Ohio Newspaper Association recently featured three stand-out apps on their website. The first, 5-0 Radio Police Scanner, has more than 2,500 downloads and a five-star user rating. The app includes a table of frequently used codes to help journalist translate radio speak.

Another popular app, Police Scanner+ Free, allows users to record a station and email the recording as an mp3 file.

Lastly, the Scanner Radio app has notifications journalists can set up to alert them when a certain number of listeners are on one station, which could be a very helpful feature for breaking news situations.

Encryption kills public access

If a local public safety agency has switched to a digital signal and that transmission is not available online, it may be encrypted. Encryption is another growing trend in radio communications. Agencies may encrypt all broadcasts or limit encryption to certain channels.

If an agency chooses to encrypt their system, there is no legal way journalists can access encrypted transmissions without the permission and assistance of that agency. An encryption key is required and it may only be accessible through software and/or equipment provided through the agency.

Radioreference.com, the parent site of Broadcastify, hosts a database of both analog and digital radio frequencies licensed with the FCC as well as discussion forums. Forums.radio-reference.com/texas-radio-discussion-forum is a resource for information about radio system changes in Texas and related topics. Notably, radio frequency experts and enthusiasts are the primary users of the discussion forums and posts tend to be technical in nature.