Scanner sharks: Special breed of hobbyists keep their ears tuned to emergency dispatches

Megan Bales, of St. Louis, takes an emergency call at the East Central Dispatch Center in Richmond Heights on Friday, Aug. 3, 2018. Calls to emergency responders from dispatchers are broadcast on communication channels, many of which are monitored in the St. Louis region by enthusiasts who then post details about the most dramatic incidents to their social media accounts. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

When dispatchers radioed St. Charles emergency services to tell them that a man was stranded in the catwalks beneath the Blanchette Bridge that carries Interstate 70 over the Missouri River, scanner hobbyist Shawn Willis heard the radio transmission the moment it crackled across the airwaves. Never mind that he was in the shower. A radio was on his bathroom counter, and he was tuned in, as he usually is several hours every day.

While Willis dried off, dressed and headed to the scene of the Oct. 23 incident, fellow enthusiast Richard Survant continuously posted details to the St. Charles County Scanner Traffic account on Twitter, SCC Scanner Traffic, as he heard them. As firefighters orchestrated a high-angle rescue, Survant and Willis heard the drama unfold in real time and relayed details to their many followers on social media.

“Pattonville Fire 4835 is on the catwalk on the bridge,” SCC Scanner Traffic tweeted. “St. Charles City Fire 9420 has spoken with the person. No injuries reported by the patient.”

The string of tweets continued until rescuers transmitted that they had figured out how to rescue the stranded man.

‘It progressed very fast’

Willis runs the St. Charles County Missouri Scanner Traffic page on Facebook, where he fills in 80,000 followers on the details of unfolding emergencies such as car accidents and house fires. He created the page and now runs it with the help of Survant and Jeff Summers, another scanner hobbyist. They operate the Twitter account, and a couple of years ago they started a Facebook and Twitter account for St. Louis County scanner traffic.

“I started (the St. Charles County page) in 2012 just as a hobby for myself,” Willis said. “At first it was pretty much to allow my friends to know what was going on because they knew I was always listening to police scanners, so they were like ‘Hey, what’s going on here, Shawn, what’s going on here?’ … A week later I had over 1,000 followers. I don’t know 1,000 people. It just progressed very fast, and over time it’s turned into a second full-time job.”

The trio also use the Facebook page to share safety tips and other announcements from law enforcement and firefighting agencies. Their posts, both scanner-related and not, often receive dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of reactions and spur conversations in the comments section.

“There’s been times when we’ve gotten messages from police officers as well as the general public where when we posted about (a stolen car), and then they’re able to recover the stolen vehicle,” Willis said.

Learning curve

There’s a learning curve for listening to scanners. Firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement use radios to convey important information to each other about crashes, fires, medical emergencies and crimes in progress, but they don’t all use the same radio lingo. Some agencies use plain language, others use numbered codes. Some agencies such as the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department have encrypted their radio transmissions so they can’t be heard at all.

Willis works for an HVAC company, but when he’s not at work, he’s often listening to scanners — from the moment he gets into his car to head home until he goes to sleep, five or six hours a day. He went through an EMT program and once aspired to be a firefighter.

In addition to running the scanner page, he volunteers to take photos for a couple of St. Charles County fire protection districts.

“It’s all about (public relations), which is why we have such a good relationship with the fire districts,” Willis said. “We help them out as much as we can. That’s what the page is built around is fire and EMS and law enforcement. Any chance I get to buy a police officer his item he’s buying at QuikTrip, I do.”

Listening to scanners also takes patience. For every thrilling rescue or nail-biting car chase that comes through the scanner, there are many more small fires and minor medical calls that regular listeners don’t find worthy of a tweet or post.

“It’s a lot like fishing,” said David Walters, who operates the Scanner News STL Twitter account. “You can go at it a long time and get absolutely nothing.”

Walters has been running his St. Louis-area Twitter account only since 2016 and his Facebook account since 2017, but his hobby harks back to the ’90s when he did live radio reports on traffic.

Naturally curious

Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on scanners, Walters listens to transmissions through websites that provide scanner feeds for free. (Broadcastify  provides live feeds of scanner transmissions with the help of scanner hobbyists.) Walters switches on six or seven channels at a time and follows major emergencies through the chatter with a discerning ear, posting updates to his pages in the broadcast writing style he learned while working for a radio station.

“Report a larceny just occurred at the Dollar General, 10 Fee Fee Road near Midland,” a December tweet from Scanner News STL reads. “Female suspect (reportedly wearing a tan coat with fur) allegedly fled the scene in a gold in color minivan with a male subject. Vehicle was last reportedly seen northbound on Fee Fee.”

“I just like it,” said Walters, who lives in unincorporated St. Louis County. “I’m a naturally curious guy, and I’ve always been interested in local stuff.”

His family is supportive of his hobby, he said, and he and his son sometimes visit fire stations in Jefferson and St. Louis counties.

“I went to almost every firehouse and got to meet these guys in person, and almost every time they invited us in and gave us a tour. They’ll sit in the firetruck and explain what they do, and they’re professional and they’re nice and they know what they’re doing. And obviously (I admire) their bravery and courage. On the scanner, you can hear some really scary stuff.”

On the Illinois side, Chris Rhodes has been running a Madison County-centric Facebook page since 2015. Rhodes has a scanner on both floors of his East Alton home and one in his car. He said he grew up around scanners because his father was a firefighter for 14 years. He is also a volunteer firefighter for Bethalto.

“I got laid off from my job and I was looking for something to do to pass the time, and I saw the St. Charles County page was doing pretty good,” Rhodes said. “We didn’t have one in Madison County. I was hoping to get 300 or 400 followers, and now it’s at 30,000.”

Mixed reviews

When it comes to scanner social media pages run by hobbyists, opinions from actual first responders vary. St. Louis Fire Department Capt. Garon Mosby said he was “not supportive” because audiences couldn’t know how proficient a hobbyist is at understanding what firefighters and paramedics are talking about on the radio waves. He encouraged people to follow the fire department’s official social media accounts to stay informed.

“We work very hard to build trust,” Mosby said, “We want people to seek a reputable source of information, and when emergencies break out, the fire chief sometimes has to clean up misinformation.”

Wentzville Fire Chief John Schneider took a different tone, saying he’s gotten to know Willis over the years and has seen the posts of the St. Charles County scanner Facebook page.

“They’ve done a really nice job of communicating the traffic that goes on the radio and turning around and putting it on social media for the public,” Schneider said. “That’s where they fit in … they’ve done a tremendous service to residents on (conveying) traffic conditions.”

Willis said he was thoughtful about anything he posts on Facebook. He knows it has a wide reach, and he doesn’t want to jeopardize police operations while they’re happening by making certain things public.

The growing audience of their social media offerings has even brought the scanner guys a measure of local fame. During an interview with the Post-Dispatch, Willis was approached by a star-struck woman who saw his shirt with a St. Charles County Scanner Traffic logo emblazoned on it.

“I’m super intrigued you run the scanner page because I follow it like crazy,” she said. “It’s like meeting a celebrity right now.”


Source: St Louis Post-Dispatch

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