The Washington Post
March 8, 1991, Friday, Final Edition
SECTION: WEEKEND; PAGE N9
LENGTH: 2449 words
They're All Ears
BYLINE: Kevin McManus
BILL STOHLMAN has never been one to ignore a shrieking siren. As a kid he
followed fire trucks and ambulances on his bike. As a young man he trailed them
by car, always keen to learn posthaste the nature of the emergency and the
details of the response.
Now a pediatrician in his early sixties, Stohlman still finds his curiosity
aroused whenever a siren wails, either in his Bethesda neighborhood or in the
Rockville area where he works. But instead of hopping into his car and following
the flashing lights, he typically switches on a police scanner -- a radio that
can be programmed to scan automatically the frequencies used by fire fighters,
police and other public safety workers. (They can also pick up people's mobile
phone conversations. More on that later.)
Almost always, Stohlman's scanner quickly gets him the lowdown on the fire or
accident or other mishap that triggered the sirens. Then, he says, "My curiosity
is settled. And that's really all it is, is curiosity. I don't particularly
enjoy watching fires burn or anything like that. In fact, I'd just as soon not
be there watching it."
Other scanner buffs, when asked about their rather arcane hobby, echo
Prince William County resident H. Chris Jorgensen, who owns five scanners,
says, "I started listening to find out what was happening around my community.
The local newspaper doesn't really cover a lot of the stuff that goes on."
"Just being able to stay informed. That's it," concurs Frank Carson, a Prince
George's County police officer who owns eight scanners. "The way things are
today, locally and around the world, you've got to stay informed."
Willard Hardman, a Virginian who owns six scanners, says the pastime is a
kick because it enables him to soak up knowledge about the police, firefighters
and emergency medics he eavesdrops on. Specifically, he says, "How do they
function? How are they organized? What are they responsible for? Why do they do
the procedures they do?"
Takoma Park's Alan Henney observes, "Scanning is a passive hobby. It's nice because you just turn on the radio and you listen. If you collect coins,
you've got to go through the coins and look at them with a magnifying glass in
your spare time. But here, once you program the radio, it's off and running."
Five scanners are off and running simultaneously whenever Henney is in his
bedroom, awake. Together these radios spew a cacophony of overlapping voices
punctuated by beeps, tones and frequent bursts of static.
Henney, an honor-roll undergraduate at George Washington
University, somehow is able to study -- and even to write term papers -- while keeping his brain partly tuned to discussions about car thefts, shootings, stabbings and other nasty stuff.
It's hard to replicate in print the dialogues that reach a scanner user's ears, since many of the transmissions come wrapped in aural fuzz. Usually, though, an experienced listener needs only a snippet of conversation to get the gist of what's going on. A vigorous imagination can help fill in any missing details.
Here's part of a 7th District Metropolitan Police conversation Henney monitored:
"Do need to know where the victim was shot."
" . . . graze across the head . . . "
"Victim is in apartment 2, suspect in apartment 1."
"Does the suspect drive a vehicle or anything?"
" . . . goes by the name of Leroy . . . "
" . . . hundred block of Condon Terrace."
"Okay, I'll cruise the area."
"Red Fila sweat jacket . . . last seen going out the front door . . . "
Henney, who claims to listen to discussions about District shootings
"almost every night," says he's surprised how few shootings are reported by the
popular media. "If it's someone just shot -- not fatal, not a child, not at a
school, not a white lawyer -- the media won't necessarily report it unless they
get some good pictures."
Radio chatter needn't always dwell on accidents or violent crime to draw
the interest of eavesdroppers. One event that recently captivated many local
monitors was the Jan. 26 antiwar demonstration in downtown Washington.
Chris Jorgensen experienced the commotion that Saturday afternoon in the
comfort of his suburban Virginia home.
"I listened to it on three of the Park Police's channels, and also to the
Federal Protective Service on their main channel, and also to the Metropolitan
Police Department on their channels, and also the Park Police's maintenance
channel for their Mall operations," he says, describing a frequency-hopping
strategy that is a definitive habit of scanner enthusiasts.
That noon-to-7 p.m. monitoring session provided Jorgensen with what he
believes is a more balanced account of the event than was given by newspapers,
radio and TV. When you listen to his comments, though, you can't help but
wonder whether heavy scanner use causes a listener to regard the world through
an unusually dark filter.
"I learned how unruly the protesters really are," Jorgensen says. "For
instance, they managed to set about every trash can on fire in the whole Mall
But weren't the fires reported by the media?
"Probably not," Jorgensen says, "because the press only covers the part about
how they march, and the cause and everything. But the bottom line is the police
officers had to call several fire trucks up there to take care of the fires."
And, in fact, The Post's stories on the Jan. 26 march did not mention
Cops, fire fighters, EMS technicians and other radio users apparently don't
mind that scanner fans listen to their radio chatter. Even if some do mind,
there's not a thing they can do about it. Scanning is legal, though 14 states
restrict the use of them in cars (Maryland, Virginia and the District do not).
Frequencies are published in a bunch of places and many public-safety radio
users are themselves scanner buffs.
So speakers find it in their interest to be discreet.
"If you don't want anybody to hear it over the radio, you just don't say
it," says Prince George's County police officer Frank Carson, expressing what he
says is a common philosophy. (Cops typically call their dispatchers over land
lines when they have something touchy to talk over.)
Of course, there are some radio users who habitually need to discuss secret
matters and can't afford to be overheard. FBI agents, Secret Service agents and
police detectives on sensitive missions are but a few examples.
For them the proper tool is an electronic device that scrambles
transmissions, or renders them incomprehensible to all but the intended
recipients. At present the cutting-edge scrambling technology is digital
encryption standard (DES).
Never mind how DES works. What's important to know, particularly if you're a
nosy person, is that most cellular telephones -- which in fact are radio
transmitters -- don't use encryption devices. Such devices are expected to
become standard on cellular gear eventually. But for at least the next few years
scanner owners will be able to tune in easily to strangers' mobile phone
Before you try this sort of recreational snooping, understand that there are
a few catches.
The first is that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 says you
can't monitor transmissions from any type of mobile phone.
Among scanner buffs it's a truism that the authorities never bother people
who eavesdrop recreationally on cellular conversations. And indeed, FBI
spokesman Mike Kortan recently came up empty when asked to check for
investigations of such snoopers. But the Justice Department stops shy of saying
it won't prosecute such cases. So, at least in theory, there is some legal risk
Another catch is that when you casually monitor cellular callers, you have no
control over whose conversations you hear. The scanner simply hops from
frequency to frequency, within a certain range -- 870-890 megahertz (MHz) -- and
pauses whenever it senses a strong signal. (There is a way to snoop on a caller
in a particular car, but it's tricky and unambiguously frowned on by federal
A third catch is that most of the inexpensive scanners sold today are not
equipped to monitor frequencies used by cellular phones. Scanner buffs note,
however, that a simple modification -- the clipping of a diode -- can render a
scanner instantly "cellular capable."
What sort of chatter is heard on cellular frequencies? When you ask true
scanner buffs this question, they're apt to scoff and say such conversations are
all insufferably boring.
"To be honest, you've got to listen to a lot of conversations to hear
anything exciting," Henney says. "So many of the phone calls, especially at
night, are routine domestic squabbles. Husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, just
talking to each other and using dirty words."
What's boring to the scanner buff, however, is juicy to other people, including me. Yup, I confess, cellular conversations can be loads of fun to eavesdrop on. Over at Henney's house a while ago, a long series of entertaining exchanges included:
By the way, it's legal to eavesdrop on cordless phone conversations and
sounds picked up by switched-on baby monitors. Both types of gadgets operate in
the 46.6-47 MHz frequency range. However, because they use very weak
transmitters, you can hear your neighbor across the street but not your aunt
- Businessmen, possibly accountants, comparing notes on the financial condition of a prospective client.
- Doctors conferring on the treatment of an elderly patient.
- Colleagues in a construction firm talking about their mutual distrust of a subordinate.
- A man and a woman -- possibly former lovers -- discussing the woman's new boyfriend.
Henney punches a few buttons on one of his scanners. A husband-wife
conversation comes tumbling out of the speaker. It's a little after four on a
Friday afternoon, and the man evidently is phoning home just after driving
away from his workplace.
"You going [inaudible] tonight?"
"Well, I hope you do, angel. You deserve it."
"Well, thank you."
"Yeah, you deserve a little night out with the girls."
"Well, this way, when I have a night out with the boys you can't yell at me too much."
"Honey, you go out every other week, I never yell at you."
[laughter] "Yeah, but that's all work, though."
"I don't get to socialize."
"What? The Knights of Columbus? That's all work."
"That's all sociallllll."
"Every time I go to one of them meetings, they want me to do something . . ."
That conversation ends, and another couple's begins. Then another's.
Concentrating on the cellular chatter, snacking on it guiltlessly, I look at
Henney every so often to study his reactions to particularly personal comments
or peppery exchanges. Always he appears indifferent.
Does he really find this stuff so boring?
"I wouldn't say boring," Henney says. "If I didn't have anything else to
do, I would end up listening to that. But there's so much else out there to
listen to, I'm overwhelmed really. I'm always having a hard time deciding what
to program into my radio."
So many frequencies, so little time.
Scanning the Horizon
SCANNING IS A relatively inexpensive hobby that requires little instruction
and basically no physical exertion. To get started, you need only a scanner -- a
$ 75 (minimum) radio that can be programmed to scan, automatically and
repeatedly, a series of frequencies. The more sophisticated the scanner, the
more frequencies you can program into it.
It also helps to have one of the many frequency guides sold by electronics
retailers. A popular one is "Police Call" (sold at Radio Shack stores), which
lists thousands of public safety frequencies in use throughout the United
States. Volume 2 includes Maryland, and Volume 6 includes Virginia and the
District of Columbia. Each paperback volume costs $ 7.95.
For novices, the guide at the front of "Police Call" is helpful. In clear
English it explains the basics of radio bands, radio system types, antennas,
programming of scanners and other topics.
A more complete guide to monitoring, generally available in libraries, is
"The Scanner Listener's Handbook," by Edward Soomre. This gives exhaustive
information about working with scanners and accessories, but doesn't contain
extensive frequency lists.
Probably the best way to get the hang of scanning is to spend a few hours
with a devoted buff, preferably one who monitors two or more radios at a time.
Such zealots usually are willing to share their knowledge. The country's
leading club for buffs, the Radio Communications Monitoring Association (407/338-0021), has a nationwide membership of about 2,500.
Locally, Alan Henney runs a loosely organized RCMA chapter, the Capitol Hill Monitors (301/270-2531), which has about 20 [now 150] members. -- Kevin McManus
ACCORDING TO scanner enthusiast Alan Henney, the following frequencies are
among several dozen that provide interesting listening in this area. To learn
other frequencies, consult one of the directories available where scanners are
FIRE AND RESCUE
On these, a listener will hear fire fighters, emergency rescue service (EMS)
and rescue squad personnel being dispatched and responding to a variety of
154.19 -- District of Columbia dispatch
154.235 -- D.C. fireground
852.6125 -- D.C. EMS dispatch
154.16 -- Montgomery County dispatch
494.8375 -- Prince George's north dispatch
494.6625 -- Prince George's, south dispatch
495.0125 -- Prince George's EMS operations
154.13 -- Arlington County dispatch
154.43 -- Alexandria City dispatch
460.575 -- Fairfax County dispatch
Among the following, 159.03 is a popular frequency among news media scanner
users. Police investigators are paged over it and often are sent to specific
addresses where crimes have occurred. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)
citywide channel, 460.325, is used by any unit not assigned to a patrol
159.03 -- MPD events paging
460.275 -- MPD special operations division
460.325 -- MPD citywide units
166.925 -- U.S. Park Police patrol operations
161.385 -- WMATA Transit Police/Security
39.32 -- Maryland police Rockville barracks
39.34 -- Maryland police Forestville barracks
159.0 -- Virginia police/base (No. Va.)
154.935 -- Virginia police/mobile (No. Va.)
On these frequencies, scanner listeners can monitor EMS helicopters
responding to medical emergencies, typically auto accidents. The helicopters
transport victims to trauma centers.
44.74 -- Maryland State Police
462.95 -- Washington Hospital Center
123.05 -- U.S. Park Police
GRAPHIC: ILLUSTRATION, BRAD HAMANN