WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
FEBRUARY 2, 1997, SUNDAY
SECTION: News; Domestic
LENGTH: 2667 words
Breaking News Network
GUESTS: Alan Henney
BYLINE: Daniel Zwerdling, Washington, DC
HIGHLIGHT: Daniel visits with Alan Henney of Takoma Park, Maryland. Alan is a volunteer for BNN, the
Breaking News Network, based in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He scans the radio waves for news of fires, shootings, and crashes - and reports these incidents to
BNN. The network in turn reports such incidents to its subscribers, often local television stations on the lookout for news tips.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST: In the midst of that political flap a few weeks ago, after a couple from Florida tape an embarrassing cellular phone call between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his colleagues, everybody was talking about how shocking it is that you can tap into a private conversation.
Some were saying the couple should be prosecuted. And a curious fact got sort of lost in the public discussion, which is: what's new?
SOUND OF SCANNED CONVERSATIONS
For years now, all across America, millions of people have been practicing the hobby known as scanning. And earlier this week we dropped in on a young man who is a master of the craft.
For less than a hundred dollars you can buy a sophisticated little gadget at your local electronics store that allows you to scan the airwaves, and listen to just about anybody who
communicates over wireless telephones or walkie-talkies.
Scanner Alan Henney's set-up is a bit more elaborate. The 29-year-old graduate
student lives with his mother in a cramped house in Takoma Park, Maryland, and virtually every square inch of his bedroom is crammed with the equipment that supports his habit.
He's got more than a dozen different scanners, various-sized speakers, aerials big and small, three computer terminals, file cabinets. His bed is the size of a cot, squeezed up against a wall, with a shelf over it that might kill him if it fell; piled high with documents and tangles of wires.
It all helps him listen to everything from local pizza delivery vans to the U.S. Secret Service.
ALAN HENNEY, SCANNER: Probably 80 percent of what I scan would be government. Over on the left here I have some two-way radios, one for VHF, one for UHF. Fairfax County
Fire, what's called the REACT repeater in Washington -- National Capital REACT Repeater.
It also has several of the TV channel assignment desks. VHF frequencies from area fire departments, Montgomery, PG, Howard, Charles County.
ZWERDLING: So, you are sort of like this giant pair of ears all over this entire region, in a way.
HENNEY: That's the nice thing about scanning, is that it gives you that omnipresent feeling. You can be literally anywhere in a metropolitan area like Washington -- I can hear what's going on in the streets down there. You just don't get that from the television or radio.
And you also get to know what the police are doing on their beats. It really puts you out -- out there. From the comfort of your own home, you can be out there in the streets of Washington.
ZWERDLING: And yes, scanners like Alan Henney say they can pick up most cellular phone conversations too, easily. Although they won't acknowledge publicly that they do it, because monitoring cell phone calls is against the law.
Actually, the scanning craze has now become a business. Over the past two years, a company called
Breaking News Network,
BNN, has recruited about 140 enthusiasts who scan police and emergency bands up and down the east coast.
And whenever they hear a sizzling item, like a murder or a big fire, they send a terse summary by computer e-mail to BNN's central computer. The computer then relays that tidbit over pocket pagers held by more than 3,000 subscribers, which include newspapers, local TV stations, ambulance drivers and tow trucks.
Alan Henney has become one of BNN's star eavesdroppers.
HENNEY: Yeah, well, actually I don't like the word "eavesdrop" for starters. It always sounds sort of suspicious. I mean, people should know that there are people out there listening. If they're transmitting, it's no more secure than a regular broadcast from an FM radio station.
What is that? I thought they just dispatched a shooting.
SOUND OF UNIDENTIFIED POLICE BROADCAST
UNKNOWN POLICEMAN: -- 140, got a man down.
UNKNOWN DISPATCHER: OK, copy, we have a man down.
POLICEMAN: Unit block of S St. Northeast.
DISPATCHER: Unit block of S-Sam. Any official to respond to that location? Any official?
POLICEMAN: He's unconscious at this time. Send the [fire] board.
DISPATCHER: OK, copy, he is unconscious at this time. Is this going to be in reference to our priority can you advise me of that?
POLICEMAN: I have no idea, ma'am.
DISPATCHER: OK, I copy that direct. Be advised we do have the board responding to that location, North Capitol and S-Sam.
POLICEMAN: We need some more units up here. We got blood all out in the street and everything. Copy?
DISPATCHER: OK, I copy.
2nd UNKNOWN POLICEMAN: Vice 17 responding.
DISPATCHER: Copy, Vice 17.
2nd POLICEMAN: What's your location?
ZWERDLING: He said there's a man down, there's blood all over the place. Was that a policeman talking?
HENNEY: Yes, there was a police officer. Probably the first one on the scene.
ZWERDLING: And then while we were just listening to that, you went to the computer keyboard and typed out a message.
HENNEY: Right. In fact, it just came out to the Breaking News Network subscribers. You can see it on here. It says "DC shooting, North Capitol Street -- S Street, NE. Police on scene report: man down, unconscious, police report blood all over the place."
ZWERDLING: OK, so as we were listening to this, you were sending that message to the people on the BNN network, and everybody has just received that instantaneously.
HENNEY: Right. That's the beauty of it. It's almost real time. There's about a two-minute delay or lag time, by the time an incident happens, that we hear it and put it out.
SOUND OF POLICE SCANNER
3rd UNKNOWN POLICEMAN: I'm in a 10-50.
DISPATCHER: OK, what's your location? Rhode Island and what, 143?
POLICEMAN: R Street and North Capitol, copy? 10-50.
3rd POLICEMAN: OK, 143, that's us at this time, copy? It's unknown.
ZWERDLING: Excuse me, so now what's going on? There's something else happening, an accident?
HENNEY: Yeah, one of the DC police, scout 143, was involved in an accident while responding to the shooting, at North Capitol and R Streets.
ZWERDLING: You mean so while they were rushing to the scene of the shooting we've just been talking about, one of the police cars got into an accident?
HENNEY: And that's not the first time that happened today. Hyattsville, Prince George's county, a similar thing. Also a shooting. Police were en route to the scene, also got into an accident. Not very serious, though.
SOUND OF TYPING
ZWERDLING: OK, now you're sending this message over the BNN network.
HENNEY: I'm typing it in right now.
ZWERDLING: What is your fantasy of the perfect scanning interchange that you've never heard yet?
HENNEY: Wow. All right -- I think the excitement of scanning is that you don't know what you're going to hear next. It has a certain lure to it. If you look at an airplane crash -- a few hours before that people would have had no idea what would have happened there.
The same goes for almost anything that we listen to. It has a lot of excitement into it. You don't know what's going to happen next.
ZWERDLING: Incidentally, we called a couple of TV stations that subscribe to the Breaking News Network. They told us that BNN scanners give them access to a vast new world of information, fast.
In fact, just the other day the assignment editor at News 12 in New Jersey got an item on his BNN pager, about a terrible truck accident near his town. And you know what, he says?
When he called the police to get more information, they didn't even know about it yet. And that's what makes a scoop.