9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

From the Chair: "Scanner Land!"

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com 3-9-2013

Written by Paul D. Bagley, published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association's monthly newsletter, "The NHEDA Broadcaster."

You just sat down to begin your shift.  The cluster of screens before you glow brightly, and the radio test revealed no problems.  Before long, you will handle the fire on Broadway, the domestic violence on State Street, and the fender bender at the mall.  And of course you will wonder if the hundreds, if not thousands, of people looking over your shoulder will approve of the way you're doing your job.  The latest installment of "From the Chair" takes an irreverent look at the love-hate relationship between dispatchers and their best friends and worst enemies - the residents of Scanner Land.

Hasbro recently made changes to its board game Monopoly(TM), and this started the gears turning in my head.  What if there was a board game made exclusively about and for dispatchers - you know, a game to be played on a board for when things are really boring in dispatch.  Like the game Candy Land(TM), we could call it Scanner Land!(TM).  The object of the game would be to move a player's piece around a board that represents a shift in dispatch.  A roll of the dice would determine how many squares one moves, and each square would represent a different type of emergency call the player would have to dispatch.  The key to winning the game would be to efficiently dispatch the most number of calls while conveying the least amount of information to the press, media, and all of the assorted scanner-junkies that inhabit the real "scanner land."

Not unlike the development of the original game of Monopoly(TM) by Parker Brothers, Scanner Land!(TM) can be based upon reality.  Nothing is more real than the calls that the average dispatcher encounters every day; calls that constitute the very need for dispatchers.

Most other vocations allow practitioners to do their work and be judged on the final output.  Dispatchers have an ever-present ear eavesdropping over their shoulders.  It listens to every transmission, and judges them constantly.  It often seems as though listeners are waiting to pounce upon any perceived mistake.

There is a very broad array of people who monitor radio scanners; radio receivers that sit atop their upright piano in the living room, are found nestled on their nightstand next to their bed, or who carry portable versions that are clipped to their belt.  Scanner people are everywhere!

What is truly amazing is the range of those who listen to their scanners religiously.  Listeners can be found in every socio-economic level, among all creeds, colors and genders.  Scanner people cut across every layer of our society.  To give you an idea of how some people think of their scanners, back in my early career I had been dispatching the evening shift for almost a year.  I was in uniform with my name tag displayed when I stopped by the store on the way home to purchase a gallon of milk.  A man came up to me while I was standing in line and asked if I was the same Paul Bagley who dispatched for the local police department.  I said I was.  He replied, "Oh, my wife and I love you...we listen to your show every night!"  My show?  When I was a DJ with a top-forty radio station I would have given everything to have fans like that.  But as a dispatcher of emergency services I found myself somewhat dumbfounded.  I discovered that some people actually consider what we do entertainment!

Another thing about scanner people - some can be downright rude about things.  If there is anything on earth that you don't know, all you have to do is admit it on the radio and someone in "scanner land" will call you up and let you know just how stupid you truly are.  I once admitted on the air that I didn't know what the term "cul-de-sac" meant.  Within seconds every phone line into dispatch lit up like a Christmas tree.  All kinds of people feeling quite superior with their own knowledge informed me as to the definition of the term.

"A cul-de-sac is a circle or a loop at the end of a dead end street," one snooty person stated before abruptly hanging up.  Had it been just one person calling I would have been delighted; but it was literally dozens!

Our radio repairman appeared in my center one night due to a frequency modulation problem reported by field personnel.  The repairman narrowed it down to the console microphone, and decided to test it.  He instructed me to key the microphone and say "ah" like I was at the doctor's office having my throat examined.  He told me to keep the mike open and hold that "ah" for as long as I could.  I pushed the floor pedal and did as asked for what seemed like minutes.  He had me repeat the exercise several times.  Before he was finished tweaking the system, the phone rang.  It was one of the many ambulance personnel whom I dispatched.  Since our center had only one dispatcher on duty at a time, he knew he would be talking with me when the phone was answered.

"It sounds like nodes," he barked.  "Take two aspirin and see the doctor in the morning."  He then hung up.  The radio guy made me perform the test two more times to my utter humiliation.  Fortunately, no one else called to diagnose what ailed me.

Back when "Smokey and the Bandit" was all the rage, the closest thing there was to a reality TV show was the nightly news.  Everyone with a citizen's band radio and a whip antenna on their four-wheel-drive pickup truck also had a scanner.  These guys would shadow some of my cops on calls, and often thwarted police activities by getting in the way.  Like my fans, they simply craved entertainment.  I found myself deliberately broadcasting false calls in order to draw them to the other side of town from the real location - my officers knew they were false by a code phrase that I included in the dispatch.  They would then stop by the station, or give me a call from a phone booth, to get the real information (there also were no cell phones or digital pagers back then).

It's not that I have anything against the public listening in - it's their right, and is protected by F.C.C. regulations, and various court decisions.  Of course there's nothing in the US Constitution that guarantees freedom of listening the way the First Amendment insures freedom of speech.  Listening to radio broadcasts is just one of those many unforeseen rights that were not enumerated in the Constitution by our founding fathers because radio had yet to be invented or even conceived.  And allowing the public to listen to dispatch activities is among the many initiatives that can be considered part of a transparent government.

I'll also agree that a scanner can be a very useful tool for people who aspire to becoming dispatchers.  By trainees listening in to the center where they work they can learn from their coworkers when they're not on duty.  New people hear how others dispatch, and acquire the rhythm of their center.  I often had my trainees carry a pocket scanner with them when off duty in order to get the gist of what the job was all about.

There is another up-side to "scanner land" - most of the people listening are basically good citizens who want to do right by their police department.  Not everyone listening is up to no good.  Good citizens often call in tips that help solve crimes or capture wanted suspects.  True, much of the volume of calls generated by scanners is frivolous, and oft times redundant.  But every now and then a nugget of information comes through that  makes all the junk calls worthwhile.  And of course, using scanner people for information is quicker than Wikipedia and just as reliable - after all, Wikipedia allows users to redefine things making it a reflection of public opinion.  Scanner-generated calls ultimately reflect public perception, so why not?

Citizens who listen to scanners, as well as the news media, have been stifled in some jurisdictions with the advent of encrypted transmit and receive communications.  As though digital laptop dispatching doesn't thwart listeners enough, encryption is considered by many police agencies to be the only effective method of protecting sensitive communications.  I spent many years as a law enforcement officer and all of it without encryption.  What I said and did was always on the record, as indeed all routine police matters should be.  True, the bad guys had the ability to listen in and maybe get tipped off to what we were doing.  But my experience was that bad guys had better things to do than listen to scanners; things for which I would ultimately arrest them.  In my state the commission of a crime while in possession of a police scanner begets you an enhanced penalty upon conviction.  As a result, I've never understood the need of encryption other than in tactical situations.

One nearby police agency decided it would be a great idea to encrypt all of their channels.  It cost them a small fortune!  Two weeks after the switch over to encrypted communications took place, a local high school kid built a descrambler in the electronics lab at the school with parts he purchased at Radio Shack!  His device enabled him to listen in on everything.  He became his own cottage industry, and built up a sizeable college fund selling his little homemade descramblers to anyone who wanted one.  Over the course of time, the police agency gave up playing hide-and-seek, and opted for clear channel transmissions on all but their tactical channel.

Those of us who occupy The Chair have learned to cope with the demons that inhabit "scanner land."  Like life itself, we've learned to accept the bad with the good, and recognize that for every jerk out there you can find dozens of good people who are merely keeping abreast of what's going on around them.  As I've always said, dispatching is simple - it's just not easy.  But to our loyal listeners we make it seem easy.  Maybe a board game like Scanner Land!(TM) is a good idea.  Maybe the public we serve would grow to better understand the complex world that emergency telecommunications has become by playing the role of a dispatcher.  Possibly they'd develop a better appreciation for what it's like to have to separate the life-threatening from the mundane each day.  Maybe they'd acquire an understanding of what working in a pressure cooker is all about.  Maybe, but I doubt it!  Working in The Chair is no game, and emergency dispatching certainly isn't something for amateurs.  We'll just have to be satisfied with business-as-usual when it comes to interacting with the residents of "scanner land."

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