The Washington Post

March 27, 1996, Wednesday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 653 words

The Bad News Network

BYLINE: Kevin McManus

A network of scanner buffs, PCs and pagers delivers real news in real time

From the half-dozen radios scattered around his bedroom, Alan Henney hears a symphony of mayhem: Beltway crash in Silver Spring. Garage fire in Northeast Washington. Assault at the D.C. jail.

Of course, Henney's are not ordinary radios. They are police scanners, devices programmed to automatically traverse the two-way-radio frequencies used by fire fighters, police and other public safety workers. Not long ago, Henney, 29, was a typical scanner enthusiast, monitoring his radios strictly for fun, if that's the proper word. "It's a lot like the TV show Cops," says Henney of the hobby. "You're following what's going on in your neighborhood, or across the city. Except it's live."

But nowadays when the airwaves crackle, Henney does more than listen. Hearing a major police or fire report on a scanner, he taps out a terse bulletin on his computer keyboard and modems it to the central computer of Breaking News Network. BNN is a small, year-old news service that transmits reports of fires, accidents and other emergencies to subscribers who carry pagers. Eric Bernard, BNN's Washington-area managing editor, calls Henney the most prolific of the 46 part-time, volunteer reporters who "page out" bulletins from their home PCs.

During a recent 74-hour span, Henney paged out 28 emergencies. His log starts at 10:39 p.m. Thursday with a shooting on 47th Street SE -- "victim shot twice in chest and conscious." It ends at 12:08 a.m. Monday with a fire in Prince George's County -- "trash fire in basement of reported vacant wood frame s-f-d; fire knocked down; primary search negative; investigator req."

The users of this information include reporters, freelance photographers, police and fire buffs and bad-news junkies who don't have easy access to scanners themselves. Scanner fans follow the action with well-trained ears. They know which radio frequencies are used by the rescuers and crimefighters they're interested in. They also know the "10 codes," or spoken phrases that denote such things as "fight in progress" (10-10), "man with gun" (10-32) and "notify coroner" (10-79). Henney and fellow scanman Willard Hardman, who teaches political science at Catholic University, have just written a book that explains all this to novices, The Washington-Baltimore Scanner Almanac, a 536-page paper-back primer. Given the small number of scanner enthusiasts in this region -- the primary local club, Capitol Hill Monitors, has only 150 members -- Henney and Hardman may never recoup the $ 7,000 they spent to publish it.

No matter. The almanac has given its authors a high profile among local hobbyists. The magazine Monitoring Times called it "one of the most comprehensive printed frequency directories we've ever seen." RCMA Scanner Journal gave it a similar rave. "It used to be you would just scan through the frequencies, you'd hear something and have to sit for a week listening to it to figure out what you were listening to," says BNN's Bernard. "Now we have a compendium of information that's 500 pages of gold for a scanner enthusiast."

Henney hopes the almanac, coupled with his BNN reporting, will help jump-start a journalism career. As he sits in his Takoma Park living room, he can barely hear the jabbering scanners in his bedroom. But his alphanumeric BNN pager is right at his side. And now it's beeping. "Let's see what happened," he says. "In D.C., a search after an assault on a police officer. Vehicle attempted to run over officer at Benning Road and Southern Avenue. A helicopter's been requested to assist."

Just like Cops -- except it's live.

To order The Washington-Baltimore Scanner Almanac, send a check for $22.95 to Alan Henney, 6912 Prince Georges Ave., Takoma Park, MD 20912. Phone: 301/270-2531. E-mail: BNN (voice) 888/875-6100.

GRAPHIC: Photo, by Mark Finkenstaedt, Henney news is bad news: Scanner expert Alan Henney with his BNN pager, which delivers his and others' scanner reports.