San Diego In the hot frequencies, the 800 megahertz band, one can hear all kinds of terrible things. Good people and bad people alike victimized by neighbors, lovers, drunk drivers, dogs, drugs, alcohol. On a Monday night in mid-December, I listened to a range of misfortune -- from inconvenience to tragedy.
I heard a road worker complain to his dispatcher about a flat tire on his truck. "Where in the hell," he wondered, "am I going to find a 130 psi tire at night?"
I heard a policeman and dispatcher argue over what word best described a piece of evidence. "So it's a little plastic bag?" the dispatcher asked.
"No," the policeman said angrily. "It's a Baggie. I said Baggie."
I heard a dispatcher hail her officers, calling them to a "critical" situation. A young man, who had been mixing narcotics, had a hammer in hand and was mad. An officer and the dispatcher worried that his dog -- make that K-9 -- had been sent back to the trainer that morning. Should he wait for backup?
I heard an EMT describing an overdose victim as suffering from palpitations and pale, dry skin that was "cool to the touch."
I heard an EMT explain to a dispatcher that a woman had collapsed after a two-day alcohol binge. Her family was at the scene and was despondent because she had just been released from a treatment program. She was lethargic and also "cool to the touch."
I heard about the length and depth of the facial lacerations suffered by a man in a domestic dispute.
By mistake, I swear, I heard cell-phone conversations.
I heard Dennis Miller say something stupid about the football game. That was weird because it was playing on my TV, on mute.
Several weeks before, a well-intentioned friend sent me a police scanner. It came in a box that had Kaczynski written all over it. A mysterious return address. Square and heavy. I opened it outside. It was a Uniden Bearcat BC3000XLT, twin-turbo, 400-channel, 20-bank scanning radio.
Little did I know what a Pandora's box that package was. Over the next several weeks that Bearcat taught me a lot about what I don't know.
I read the operating guide a dozen times. I read the Police Call Frequency Guide two dozen times. I immersed myself in the guide's arcane passages on radio technology. I learned about cycles, frequencies, and wavelengths. I learned about Heinrich Hertz, a 19th-century physicist and pioneer in the study of radio waves, which travel at the speed of light. They radiate out from a transmitting antenna at 186,000 miles per second. I learned that the radio spectrum is divided into many small bands -- entertainment broadcasting, television, ships-at-sea, short-wave broadcast, amateur, aircraft, CB, and so forth. The AM and FM bands are just two small parts of the radio spectrum, which stretches from about .050MHz to 20,000MHz. In its patient introduction to radio for beginners, Police Call explains that a dial for tuning the entire spectrum "would be miles long." I read about simplex, semi-duplex, and full-duplex systems; frequency mixing; decibels; and wick, discone, and beam antennae. I studied the section on "strange sounds": intermodulation, harmonics, spurious signals, false signals, and white noise.
I fancied myself a learned, expert amateur -- a "ham." I went straight to the "800s," where most public-safety agencies broadcast. I picked something up right away: some gang members were loitering around a liquor store. The owner had called the cops. Just when they arrived at the scene and were about to confront the alleged thugs, I lost the signal. My scanner went flying. A new voice came up. It was an EMT. He told his dispatcher the ambulance would get the old man who just suffered a heart attack to the hospital in five -- then I heard Spanish.
Any real ham already knows that I skipped the Police Call section on trunking and that my BC3000XLT is an old, worthless scanner. It's not a so-called trunk-tracker; all I'll ever pick up with it are teasers -- snippets of action. Frustrated, I made some phone calls. The consensus was clear: I was an idiot and knew nothing about police scanning. I needed to go to school.
So I arranged a meeting on December 19 with Roger Williams, proprietor of the Mud Shack, a scanner retail store just east of San Diego State University. Williams has another Mud Shack in Las Vegas, where he lives, but he visits San Diego occasionally to spend time in the local store.
The Mud Shack is located in a small, humdrum mall on El Cajon Boulevard. It's cluttered with scanners -- the latest trunk-trackers and dinosaurs from the early days of scanning -- and all kinds of radio equipment. Antennae, microphones, and wires hang from hooks in the walls and lie loose in boxes. The store has been open for "about 25 years," Williams said, and is a police hangout. A coffeemaker sits on a picnic table at the front of the store, and periodically people come in off the street to grab a cup. Williams drinks coffee constantly.
"Mud," he explained, "is Navy coffee."
Williams is sort of a human scanner, a curious, garrulous man willing to share what he knows, which is quite a bit. He jumps from subject to subject, revealing in about an hour his knowledge of radio, his passion for figure skating, his fondness for Michelle Kwan, and that he is a family man, a straight shooter, and an amateur art collector. The old ham culture, he reassures me, is out there. It's just a game of cat-and-mouse.
Even if a little exasperated with my ignorance, he's a good teacher. He explained to me that almost all public-safety radio systems in the country made the switch to trunking several years ago. (The San Diego Police Department made the change in 1993.) Before trunking, simple crystal radios could tune in to the limited number of frequencies available for public-service radio transmission. As the number of frequencies multiplied, manufacturers developed the scanner, which allowed users to zero in on police- and fire-department dialogue. In the mid-'90s, scanner enthusiasts found that public-safety communications were disappearing from the airwaves. In 1998, Williams explained the effect of trunking in an article he wrote for the Digital Journalist (www.digitaljournalist.org).