RF Scanning for Preppers – Part 1, by R.W.

Sir Franics Bacon is attributed with saying, “Knowledge is power.” And nothing could be more true than when it comes to prepping for emergencies and SHTF situations. When the forces of nature or the whims of men (or women) turn life upside down, we need to have a plan for reacting. If you’re reading this then you, more than anyone else, understands how true this is. For those who are unprepared it can literally mean the difference between life and death. Shortly after I began writing this article the people in Texas were put to the test with massive loss of power and freezing temperatures that sadly resulted in many deaths.

Signals Intelligence

One area that seems to get little attention in the prepping community is that of radio frequency (RF) communications. While many understand the importance of radio communications, few seem to understand the vital imperative of signals intelligence. I’ve read through many prepping sites and books that talk about how you need to get an amateur radio license and then buy basic ham radio (or CB) gear that allows you to communicate with others.

But what about monitoring what’s going on out there, without ever saying a word? Do you understand the wealth of information that is flying around you, sight unseen? Do you have any idea of the number of local, state, and federal agencies that are broadcasting information free and clear for you to listen to? This includes all kinds of police, fire, and EMS personnel as well as dozens of governmental agencies. Most large businesses own or lease radio equipment to talk back and forth. Our armed forces use many means of communication including satellites but they also rely on good, old VHF and UHF radio systems. Commercial aircraft, railroads, maritime, and public utilities are also favorite monitoring targets. The list goes on and on.

Gathering Reliable Inteligence

All it takes is a bit of education and preparation to put yourself in the position to be a source of reliable intelligence about what’s really going on out there when things go sideways. You will be able to listen to events as they unfold. You will be able to get the word from boots on the ground when bad weather hits or a riot breaks out or an accident closes down a road. You will have the ability to possess the truth and be much less dependent on the lamestream media. If you choose, you can pass along what you have learned to family and friends to keep them informed as well.

What we need to do, then, is to find out what we want to listen to, what equipment we need to listen to it, program our equipment accordingly, learn to use the equipment effectively to monitor intended targets and finally, prepare for the day when an emergency strikes. During a real emergency, we must have the expertise to monitor as well as the power sources needed to keep us running if the electrical grid goes down. Being able to effectively use a radio scanner can provide us with important information that can be found nowhere else and long before it comes across the usual news media outlets.

What Is A Radio Scanner?

For starters, we need to define what radio scanning really is. Put simply, scanning is the hobby of using a radio receiver to intercept signals in order to hear the voice messages being carried on each signal. When we have a radio frequency we want to listen to, say the dispatch channel for the local police, we would program that frequency into a memory channel of our radio receiver. We could also program other channels to listen to the fire and EMS frequencies. A radio scanner now allows those channels to be sampled briefly for activity. This act of going through all of the programming memory channels looking for activity is referred to as scanning. The memory contents are being scanned, sampled one at a time in a continuous loop, until activity is detected. Once an active signal is found, the scanner stops on that frequency to allow us to hear the audio signal and thus listen to what is being communicated.

Another aspect to radio scanning is using that same receiver to sweep through a frequency range to detect transmissions we might not be aware of. Simply put, you program a lower and upper frequency to define a range. The scanner is put into search mode to sweep that range for activity. In this mode, the receiver starts at the lower frequency and steps through the frequency spectrum looking for active signals. If one is found, the scanner pauses on that frequency to allow you to hear the audio signal. Once the signal stops, the scanner resumes the search. When the scanner reaches the upper frequency, it starts over at the lower frequency and begins to sweep that range again for active signals. This search operation continues until you tell it to stop.

These two actions, scanning and searching, allow us to use a radio receiver to scan known frequencies for agencies we wish to monitor as well as search out new frequencies that might be brand new, not well known or perhaps unpublished to help remain clandestine. Those of us who are really into this as a hobby own multiple scanners. Keep in mind that while your scanner is listening to an active signal, it could be missing activity on other active signals. Thus multiple scanners help to prevent missing crucial information by letting each one monitor a particular agency or two. And when emergencies happen, multiple agencies are talking nonstop so there can be a lot to take in.

This is why the die-hard radio scannist will have multiple scanners dedicated to certain agencies or operations. Some scanners might be scanning while others can be searching (advanced radios or radios interfaced to a PC using special software have the ability to log and/or record signal activity to be reviewed later). Don’t even ask how many dozens of scanners, wide-range receivers and ham radio gear I own. (Yes, you read that right and yes, it probably means I should consider counseling) as well as the number of agencies I am able to monitor at a given time.

Analog and Digital Radio Systems

To research the radio that is best suited for our monitoring needs, we need to talk about the current landscape of civilian, commercial, military and public safety communications. In the good old days, radio communications were analog in that your actual voice signal was carried on a radio wave just like an AM radio station. But like everything else, most communication is now digital. While AM and FM radio stations are still around they have been augmented by satellite radio which is all digital. Analog cassette tapes gave way to digital CDs. TV stations used to beam their broadcasts using analog signals but these, too, have been changed to digital to conserve bandwidth thus allowing cable and satellite TV companies to deliver hundreds of channels. The same thing has happened with public and private radio systems — analog has almost entirely been replaced with digital.

For a digital radio system to work, your voice, like other information such as text or pictures, is first turned into a digital format that is again carried by a radio signal. When that radio signal is received, the voice component is extracted and the digital content is turned back into an analog voice signal for us to listen to. If you’re going to monitor the communications in your area, you’re first going to have to figure out which types of radio systems are being used by the various agencies you wish to listen to.

If you live in a smaller, rural area you might be lucky enough to still have purely analog communications. Some agencies use systems that combine analog (for the voice part) and digital (for the control part) communications. And the more expensive systems are fully digital which also allows them to easily encrypt all or selected channels on that system thus preventing anyone from eavesdropping.

As you begin looking into digital radio systems you will hear terms like trunked or trunking. These terms simply refer to a specialized digital radio system consisting of multiple frequencies to carry signals which are controlled by a separate frequency called the control channel which is used to keep the transmitters and receivers in sync as traffic passes through the system. Most agencies today use trunked radio systems and because that control channel is digital, you’ll need a digital or trunking scanner to receive and decode it properly so that you can listen to it.

To start the research process of finding what radio system types are in your area, you’ll want to go to RadioReference.com and look up your area which will list the agencies in your vicinity as well as what type of radio system they use. This website primarily caters to the United States and Canada. Once on the website, hover over Databases then click on Radio Database. From there you can select the county you wish to explore. There you will find blue-outlined boxes containing the owning agency of the radio system and the type of system. System types will be listed like, “Motorola Type II” or “Project 25 Phase 2” or “DMR.” These are what you’re going to need to remember as it will dictate what scanner you buy if you want to listen to those types of systems (see below). Keep in mind that you very well might be able to receive radio traffic from neighboring counties depending on geography and distance. And the more information you can gather, the better.

Scanner Selection

Analog scanners are much less expensive and you can get a nice unit for $150-to-$200. Analog scanners are also much simpler to program and use. But unless you live in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably going to need a digital (trunking) scanner like the rest of us. That’s going to at least double the price of entry as well as require more effort to program and use. Just remember that you get out of it what you put into it. Another consideration in buying is understanding that you’re trying to hit a moving target. Digital communications continue to evolve. And as they do, upgrades are needed to hear new types of systems. A digital-capable scanner from ten years ago will not be able to listen to the most modern radio systems out there today.

As an analogy, when the CD was invented your old cassette player was useless to listen to that CD. If you wanted to listen to that CD you needed to buy new equipment to listen to this new medium. Older scanners were designed to work on older systems and will continue to work on those systems. But sometimes agencies get new system upgrades or migrate to entirely new systems which are foreign to the older scanner rendering it not obsolete but hampered in what it can still receive. The good news is that the newest digital scanners will allow you to listen to all the new digital stuff as well as the old analog systems. So get the best scanner you can afford because you might need to listen to something tomorrow that you aren’t aware of today.

All digital scanners sold today will receive older Motorola, LTR, EDACS and Project 25 Standard (Phase 1) trunked radio systems. Where we run into issues are the newest trunked systems which are branded X2-TDMA, P25 Phase 2, DMR, NXDN and ProVoice. While the first two are quite popular, the latter three are not nearly as prevalent unless you live in a large metropolitan area. You don’t need to be an expert on any of these systems and exactly how they work. You just need to know what they are called so you know what to look for when selecting the scanner that will meet your needs. Be aware that some models come with the option to buy upgrades that allow you to hear more systems than the way it came out of the box.

Thankfully some high-end models can download all radio systems in the entire United States (and sometimes Canada) via a customized database that is usually upgraded on a regular basis with any changes. This greatly cuts down on the amount of manually programming you need to do since all the details are contained within the database. With such a scanner, all you need to do is to input your zip code or geographic coordinates along with a listening range in miles and the scanner will automatically select to scan all radio systems within that defined area. This makes it very easy to get up and running quickly but it is also very hands-off so you don’t really understand how your scanner works. It just does as it is programmed. While that gets you running quickly, you’ll want to learn more so you can tweak what you listen to as undoubtedly this automatic process selects things to monitor that you have absolutely no interest in listening to.

Handheld, Mobile, or Base?

Another consideration is whether you need a handheld, mobile (vehicular), or base scanner model. Many product lines are available in both handheld and mobile / base models. Obviously, each type has its own advantages and drawbacks. Handhelds are easy to take with you and supply them with power but they typically have poorer audio quality and low volume, and their radio receiver is sometimes not as sensitive or more easily overloaded compared to the other types. Keep in mind these are generalities and each radio needs to be reviewed on its own merits.

Vehicular model scanners are typically designed to be hard-wired into the vehicle’s electrical system, have loud audio and options to mount them where desired. They are typically designed to slide into open slots of your vehicle’s console just like an AM/FM radio if you so choose. Base models typically have the best quality receivers in them, and large displays and controls to make them easier to operate. They usually have the loudest and clearest speakers. Base models might be hard-wired to plug into an AC wall outlet but the best ones will use a DC power port with a power adapter, thus allowing multiple options to power them.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)