The Washington Post

March 8, 1991, Friday, Final Edition


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 Stohlman's comments.

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 area."

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 trash-can fires.


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 conversations.

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 involved.

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 authorities.)

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 across town.


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."
"Oh, bulldinky!"
"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

Frequencies Consulted

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 sold.


On these, a listener will hear fire fighters, emergency rescue service (EMS) and rescue squad personnel being dispatched and responding to a variety of emergency calls:

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 district.

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