How you can listen to local police and fire
I've seen several posts recently in the DFW Scanner Facebook group from people asking how they can listen to their local police and fire departments. A good discussion of this topic isn't really appropriate for our Facebook group, so I thought I'd post it here.
Those of us who keep you updated on DFW Scanner keep up-to-date by listening to radio receivers designed to listen to the systems that police and fire broadcast on. Some of these radios are scanners. Others are professional-level radios called pagers.
Scanners can be programmed with information on a lot of different radio systems. Once you program a scanner, you can set it to scan through some or all of those systems. Like any radio, it can only "listen" to one thing at a time, but it can cycle through all of the things you programmed into it very quickly. When it "hears" a broadcast, it will stop scanning until that broadcast stops so you can listen to what's being said. A scanner will also typically wait a few seconds after a broadcast ends before it starts scanning again so that you can hear the whole conversation.
A pager, on the other hand, is a receiver primarily designed for fire departments. A pager can listen to only one system at a time. (I'll define system a little later.) That means that you usually can't listen to two different cities at the same time. (Some areas have combined dispatch, meaning multiple neighboring cities sharing the same system. In those cases, you will hear transmissions for all of those cities.) A pager also lacks some of the functionality of a scanner. However, pagers are usually much more rugged in design (they need to withstand the rough environment a firefighter deals with), and because they are designed with specific types of systems in mind, they often perform better at receiving tough radio signals.
Before we get into scanners and pagers, here's a quick history of radio systems. I'll try not to geek out on you and bore you, but you need to understand a few things if you're going to listen to your local police and fire.
Years ago, police and fire departments operated on conventional radio systems that used a single frequency for dispatch, maybe another frequency for car-to-car communication, another frequency for firefighters fighting a fire, etc. This worked well for a while, but eventually, we started to run out of frequencies. That's when trunked radio systems were developed.
In a trunked radio system, all transmissions go over a single frequency (or sometimes a few frequencies.) Along with the voice transmission of the user, the radios also send a talkgroup ID, or TGID. TGIDs can be created for dispatch, another for police communications, maybe one for police tactical communications, another for fire dispatch, etc. You can have a huge number of TGIDs, all communicating on single frequency. When someone broadcasting on the system wants to talk to dispatch, they simply use the TGID assigned to dispatch.
Trunked systems allow a huge number of users to operate on a single frequency, and that solves the problem of not having enough frequencies (sometimes called radio spectrum) for all of the radio systems in an area. There are quite a few different trunking technologies available, and not every municipality uses the same one, but they all operate essentially the same way from a user perspective.
At first, trunked systems were still conventional, meaning they broadcasted using analog radio transmissions. Analog signals are prone to static and other types of interference, so as the technology improved, municipalities started to upgrade to digital systems. In a digital system, radios receive transmissions as data rather than analog voice. The radio system converts that data into the voice that you hear. The result is a very clear signal, and one that's not as likely to experience interference. (You might remember when TV stations went digital, and how that meant no more snow in the picture, etc. Same thing with radios.)
So why do you need to know all of this? Well, each time these technologies change, scanners that were designed to listen to the old type of system will no longer pick up anything. Just as with any type of technology, as the technology evolves, people using the technology have to evolve along with it. That's why many people who have older scanners now find themselves listening to silence and wondering where everyone went! Trust me. Everyone's still there. They're just using a system your radio can't pick up!
Assuming you haven't fallen asleep on your keyboard at this point, let's talk about the ways you can listen to your police and fire departments.
Some people who listen on scanners and pagers will plug their radios into a computer and send a broadcast of that radio over the Internet. You can listen to that stream (assuming there is one for your area) using apps that are available for phones, computers, and tablets. You can also listen by browsing to https://www.broadcastify.com . Broadcastify is the largest source of public safety transmissions on the Internet, and many of the apps I mentioned above use Broadcastify feeds.
The drawback to using an app or Broadcastify is that you don't control everything you're listening to. If a stream is broadcasting a lot of different things, you can miss transmissions or catch only parts of a transmission. Most dispatchers speak quickly, and unless you listen carefully and hear the entire conversation, it's often very hard to figure out what's going on.
The other drawback is that you are at the mercy of the person providing your stream. If they stop broadcasting, you're in the dark. If their equipment isn't optimal and their reception is bad, you'll suffer from that as well.
One of the most popular digital trunking systems today is the P25 (sometimes called Project 25 or APCO-25) system. Many police and fire departments use P25 systems, but they're difficult to monitor in some cases. Consumer-grade radios (like most scanners) often have such a hard time monitoring these systems that they are worthless. (There's an exception to this that I'll talk about soon.) Recently, people have discovered that public safety pagers are an excellent alternative to scanners when you encounter problems with a P25 system.
These pagers are designed to listen to P25 systems, so they do it very well. (An example is Unication's excellent G4 and G5 pagers.) Pagers are small and durable, but they can be difficult to program, and they lack the flexibility of a scanner. Not only can they not monitor the full range of systems that a modern scanner can monitor, but they lack features that people used to scanners expect in a radio. Even so, if your local system is a P25 system, a pager is often a great choice.
Scanners are designed to listen to many different types of systems. A top-of-the-line consumer scanner can pick up just about any radio transmission that's legal to listen to. However, most scanners can encounter difficulty in monitoring some P25 systems that use what's called simulcast. The exception to this is Uniden's new SDS100 scanner. It uses new technology that makes it much better at picking up these tough systems, and in many situations, it performs as well as pager.
One disadvantage to a scanner is that it's a bit bulky compared to a pager, and the battery life is much shorter than a pager.
Making a Decision
So with all of this information, how do you decide what you need if you want to listen? The first thing you need to do is figure out what type of system your local municipalities use. The best way to do that is look in the Radio Reference database. This database is pretty easy to navigate, but unless you understand some basics, it can be hard to understand what you see. (That's why I gave you the short radio primer above!)
I'm not going to go into how to program a radio. Radio Reference has forums for specific radio models that can help you there. However, I will point out something that you need to pay careful attention to so that you don't get a radio that doesn't work for you.
When you're looking at a trunked system in Radio Reference (and most areas use trunked systems), you'll see a list of talkgroups (TGIDs) that I explained earlier. In that same row, you'll see a Mode column. If the Mode column contains a "D", the system is digital and you'll need a radio that can monitor digital systems in order to hear it. All of the recent radios will be able to listen to digital, but if you're buying from someone on eBay, you need to be careful that are you getting a radio that can receive digital systems. (An "A" in the Mode column is an analog system, but you won't see a lot of those.)
You may also see an "E" in the Mode column. That means that the transmissions on that talkgroup are encrypted. If that's the case, you won't be able to listen to them on any scanner or pager. Sadly, many police departments are moving to encryption recently, so you'll want to check your local area before you invest in a radio. (By the way, a lower-case "e" in the Mode column means that the TGID is partially encrypted. An upper-case "E" means it's fully-encrypted.)
If you have questions about your local system, check out the regional forums on Radio Reference. There's a forum for Texas that offers some great information, and the folks there are friendly and will be happy to answer your questions.
What I Use
Whew! I assume you're still with me after all of that. Boring stuff in some cases, but I hope it helps you to understand what you're in for if you want to monitor our local systems. I monitor Keller, Southlake, Colleyville, Westlake, Watauga, North Richland Hills, Richland Hills, and Haltom City for DFW Scanner. That sounds like a lot, but it's really only two systems. Keller, Southlake, Colleyville, and Westlake all operate on the same system. (They're referred to a Northeast Tarrant Combined Dispatch, or NETCOM for short.) Police dispatch for all of those cities happens on one TGID and fire alarms are dispatched on one TGID, so it's pretty easy to monitor them all. Watauga, NRH, Richland Hills, and Haltom City are the same; police for all cities is dispatched on one TGID and fire for all cities is on another TGID.
In order to monitor all of these cities, I use two radios. I have a Unication G5 that I use to monitor NETCOM. I listen only to police dispatch and fire alarm. If there's a police incident and they switch over to a non-dispatch police channel, I can turn a knob on my G5 to quickly monitor only that traffic. If a fire alarm goes out, I can switch over to the TGID for fire response and listen to that traffic only.
To monitor Watauga, NRH, Richland Hills, and Haltom City, I use a Uniden SDS100 scanner. The SDS100 is programmed very differently from the G5, so I use it a little differently. I still only listen to TGIDs for police dispatch and fire alarm, but it's also programmed to monitor fire talk channels (the channels firefighters use when responding to and fighting a fire) and police talk channels. However, I have it set so that it doesn't scan these channels so that I don't miss any dispatches. When something happens I'm interested in, I can turn a knob on the scanner to manually move over to the channel where the action is happening.
This is the way I have my radios set up. Others use different methods. There isn't a right and wrong way. After listening for a while, you find what works for you. When I was just listening for myself, I used a much different system, but now that I'm posting information for over half a million people, I had to tweak my system a bit!
I hope all of this helps you if you're looking for a radio. Please feel free to engage in some conversation in this forum! I'll be happy to answer any questions, and I know there are others in our Facebook community who know more than I do about these radio systems, and I'm sure they'd be happy to chime in, too!