(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)
When radio systems were still purely analog, there were many manufacturers vying for your attention to buy their scanning receiver. With the costs of developing digital-capable receive technology and a dwindling user base, the market has collapsed to just two manufacturers of multimode (analog and digital_ scanning receivers: Uniden and Whistler. Uniden, having been one of the pioneers in consumer electronics developing dozens of models over the past 40 years, currently has twelve scanner models available while Whistler offers six.
For those who might want to dip their toe in the water, there are $150 analog models from both companies (Uniden BC125AT and Whistler WS1010) that will allow you to learn a lot about scanning receivers with a minimal investment. These scanners can only monitor analog radio systems but most public safety agencies have long ago moved to digital systems. Most fire and EMS agencies have moved to digital but still keep their dispatch analog channels active. There are still many agencies on analog systems like commercial and military aircraft as well as many businesses. But an analog scanner will do nothing to let you monitor the vast majority of public safety agencies (police, fire, EMS, hospitals, emergency management, animal control, etc.). Just be aware that neither of these two analog models have coverage above 512 MHz because that’s where the vast majority of digital radio systems are found.
If you want to delve into the digital realm of receivers then be ready to part with $300 for the Whistler digital and base models or $400 for Uniden’s comparable offerings. The Uniden offerings (BCD325P2 and BCD996P2) will likely be worth the extra cost as they cover the more popular Project 25 (aka P25) Phase 1 and Phase 2 systems which the Whistler models (WS1040 and WS1065) do not. It’s very likely that you’ll want P25 Phase 1 / 2 coverage but if you’re sure you don’t then you can save some money by going with Whistler.
The next step up is Uniden’s BCD436HP and BCD536HP which sell for around $500. These include support for P25 Phase 1 and Phase 2 systems built-in, with the option of paying to upgrade the radio’s software to receive NXDN, DMR and ProVoice digital systems. These two radios are part of Uniden’s HomePatrol series (along with the HomePatrol-2 model) which come with the entire US and Canadian radio databases programmed into them. All you have to do is punch in your zip code and a listening range in miles, and it will automatically select all systems within that circle of coverage to monitor. Obviously, you also have the capability to hand-program the scanner for the systems you want if you are more of the hands-on type. The automatic option gets you up and running quickly while the manual option allows you to fine-tune exactly what you listen to — and also learn how your scanner actually works.
While DMR and NXDN are optional upgrades for those Uniden models, Whistler’s TRX-1 and TRX-2 come programmed with support for those two radio systems out of the box. But that will set you back roughly $500 and it won’t give you ProVoice support like you have with Uniden’s less expensive offerings.
The cream of the crop today is Uniden’s newest software-defined radio (SDR) offerings called the SDS100 and SDS200. Out of the box they cover just about every radio system out there today (early 2021). They are very slick and sexy radios with multi-color LCD displays that convey a wealth of information (so much so that it can be overwhelming). But they are also the most complicated to understand and use. And, of course, they are the most expensive at $650 to $700.
Obviously, this can be a sizable investment and may be daunting for some. Just keep in mind that wealth of information that can be gained from listening to public safety agencies over a 20 – 25 mile range around you (which can be expanded using a better antenna system — see below.) You’ll have first-hand accounts as incidents happen by listening to highway patrol (both ground and air units), sheriff, local police, fire departments, ambulances and EMS crews, hospitals, security guards, commercial businesses, public utilities, commercial and military aircraft, emergency management personnel, amateur radio, NOAA weather, forest rangers, state agencies, federal agencies (many of which are encrypted), railroads, marine traffic, CB radio, public FRS and MURS radios, and much more.
Speaking of NOAA weather, almost all scanning receivers have the ability to monitor the NOAA weather radio frequencies and if an alert is sent out, these scanners have the ability to emit a loud alert sound to get your attention. While this is beneficial for bad weather like snowstorms, floods and hurricanes, they are particularly useful for those who need to be forewarned of tornado activity as soon as possible.
With the information given thus far, you should be able to make a list of the agencies in your area to figure out which scanner(s) fit the bill. Then, based on your budget, you are in the position to buy an invaluable piece of prepping equipment. If you were sitting across the table from me and asking my advice, I would say one of the best deals right now for preppers is the Uniden BCD325P2. It’s around $400 at the time of this writing and can listen to a large variety of analog and digital systems. But I am put off by the fact that it does not come with interface software leaving you to have to find a software package to use with it because you don’t want to have to program this scanner by hand.
For less than $100 more you can buy the Uniden BCD436HP or Whistler TRX-1. Both of these come with a free software interface package, and are designed to download and install the RadioReference database. I think the extra cost is well worth it since you get the software and database included. This will make it much easier to program right out of the box, and changes to radio systems will be automatically applied to your scanner when a database update is made available online. The biggest difference between these radios is that the Whistler comes out of the box with support for DMR and NXDN while each of these systems is an additional $70 upgrade for the Uniden.
From a prepper point of view, handheld models are the best way to go as they are very portable (if you need to bug out) and are easily powered with AA batteries. If money is no object then you really don’t need to read any of this section. Just lay down your hard-earned cash to shell out for the top-of-the-line Uniden SDS100 (or its equivalent base / mobile model, the SDS200) which are selling for around $700 right now.
While learning to use a modern scanning receiver can be daunting, the process can be made much easier through the use of interface software. Most scanners today are supplied with a PC interface port that allows you to couple it to a personal computer. Depending on the software used, this allows the scanner to be programmed at the very least and some offerings allow for very advanced monitoring, logging, graphing and recording capabilities.
Uniden’s latest scanners can be interfaced with their own Sentinel software package that can be downloaded from their website. This software makes it much easier to program their scanners because it comes with the entire RadioReference website database for the United States and Canada. With just a few clicks you can pick which systems you want to monitor and then those systems are downloaded into the scanner for monitoring.
If your scanner does not come with a supplied software package, there are a number of freeware and paid packages available on the internet provided the scanner supports a PC interface. My Uniden BCD325P2 came with a USB interface cable but I had to find a third party software package to use with it. Without this software I’d have to manually program hundreds of frequencies and other attributes using the radio’s keypad which would have taken many hours of effort via tedious keypresses. With interface software, I can simply use my computer keyboard to type in frequencies, text tags, and so on. Once done I simply connect the scanner to my computer and with the click of a button all of this information is downloaded into the scanner’s memory in seconds.
My Uniden BCD436HP and Whistler TRX-1 both came with a USB interface cable but they also have an onboard SD memory card that comes programmed with the entire RadioReference database of radio systems in the entire United States and Canada. Going to the Uniden website I downloaded their free Sentinel software package while the Whistler software was included right on its SD card. This software allowed me to search for systems to download into my scanner as well as to periodically check to see if there are updates to the RadioReference database or the radio’s firmware. This ensures that my scanner and monitoring targets are always up to date.
Your scanner will come with an antenna in the box. But most of the provided antennas are typically poor performers — especially handheld models. If you want to receive many more signals you’ll want to invest $25 or so to get a much better handheld antenna. If most of your monitoring is done on digital systems in the 700 / 800 / 900 MHz range then you can buy a dedicated antenna for those ranges (they’ll typically be touted as 800 MHz antennas). But if an antenna is best for 800 MHz it will do poorly for anything you will want to receive in the VHF bands (30 – 300 MHz) (commercial aircraft, various military and older public safety systems).
If you want an antenna that will receive well across its entire receive range, consider getting a telescoping whip that extends to 2 – 3 feet in length. Just be sure you pay attention to the type of antenna connector on your scanner. In the past, all scanners came with a BNC connector but these days, as radio size is shrinking, more and more are using the smaller footprint SMA connector. Make sure the antenna you choose matches that connector. And yes, there are adapters available to convert one connector type into another but this does make things a bit unsightly.
If you have a base model scanner (or mobile model used indoors instead of a vehicle) consider getting a discone antenna which is designed to maximize signal reception across a wide frequency band. These models typically run $75 -to- $100 dollars and are designed to be mounted outdoors but you can put them inside your attic if you have a wood frame house with a composition or shake shingle roof. (Metal roofs can partially block transmission and reception.) Radio reception is line of sight so the higher you can get the antenna then the more signals it will receive.
Just be sure to use good quality antenna cable like RG6, RG11, or LMR400 for your discone antenna. Using a good discone can allow you to receive a lot more radio activity if that’s what you desire but if you use too long of an antenna cable or cheap quality cable then that cable will actually attenuate radio signals and you could end up receiving less traffic!
Power Options for Emergency Use
Now that we have a radio in hand and ready for action we must prepare for how we will use this resource during SHTF events. With the recent disaster in Texas, if you had lived within the affected region of that state and you went days without power, how long would your scanner remain usable?
If you have a handheld scanner then it likely runs on AA batteries. Do you have a plentiful stock of alkaline or lithium AAs in your cabinet? What happens when all of those AAs are used up? Do you have rechargeable NiMH AAs in stock? When they are depleted, how will you recharge them? Many handheld scanners have a USB port which means you might be able to recharge the AAs inside the radio with a power bank like you would use to recharge your cell phone. Or maybe you have a battery charger that can be run from a portable solar panel or your generator?
If you have a mobile model that is mounted in your vehicle then as long as that vehicle has a supply of gas then you have power to run that scanner (minimize the time you run the scanner off the vehicle battery with the engine not running since you don’t want a dead car battery). The downside is that in order to listen to this scanner you must be in your vehicle. That’s not terribly practical most of the time unless you’re living in your vehicle. Perhaps you’ve planned ahead and have the ability to disconnect this mobile scanner and bring it indoors to use alternate power sources?
If you have a base model scanner or mobile model brought indoors, then how will you power it? If it’s a base model that only has an AC cord then you’ll need a generator or an inverter connected to a DC power source. A more flexible approach would be a base model that has a DC power port along with the appropriate cable that you can hook up to a car, motorcycle or marine battery that you’ve kept on a trickle charger just waiting for the SHTF event. Have you given any thought to calculate how long this setup will give you power to run your scanner? Do you have a way to recharge that battery, once it’s depleted?
Being a prepper means thinking through emergencies to their logical end. What happens if this occurs? What happens if that? Think through what you have and how you will keep it running if something like the Texas event happens and you are without power for several days or maybe a couple of weeks. If this scanner is part of your lifeline to what’s going down out there then you need to give it a top priority after water, food, and shelter. Failing to plan is just planning to fail!
If you want to maximize your radio intelligence-gathering capabilities then you’ll likely want to consider two other types of receivers – wideband and HF. With the advent of digital communications the wideband receiver is becoming less and less relevant. Wideband receivers are made by companies like Alinco, AOR, and Icom these days. They are typically available in base and handheld models but their claim to fame is allowing the reception of any analog radio signal from 100kHz up to 3GHz. While some of the more expensive models do handle a limited number of digital signals, they do not handle digital radio systems like scanners are made for.
A good model to dip your toe into this pond would be the Alinco DJ-X11T which retails for $300. This compact handheld has good performance, an informative display, backlit keypad, 1,200 memory channels and a multitude of receive modes and step sizes. It runs on a supplied lithium battery but also comes with a AA battery holder.
While a wideband receiver may be a luxury for your needs, a decent HF (shortwave) receiver is a must-have as far as I’m concerned. A decent portable model can be had for around $150 while a fully-featured base model can run you over $2,000. To get started, consider a portable model from C Crane, Eton / Grundig, Sangean, or Tecsun. You’ll be surprised by the performance and features that can be had for around $150. Then you’ll have to learn about the differing receive bands and how the propogation changes for daytime and nighttime reception.
You’ll also need to use online resources that will help you find radio programs from around your country and around the world whether for entertainment, music, or news. You’ll be able to tune into signals carrying many different languages but most serious stations dedicate part of their day in broadcasting English-speaking programs even though it’s not their native language. The nice thing is that most HF radios also come with the ability to tune normal AM and FM radio stations. The better ones can demodulate sideband (USB and LSB) transmissions. Some can even tune the NOAA weather radio stations.
And just like scanner radios, these receivers will be much more useful when coupled with a good antenna typically designed for the specific frequency ranges you want to monitor.
Are You Ready?
I believe that a modern scanning receiver along with a decent HF radio are essentials for our prepping needs. If things go badly or perhaps go really sideways, then we’ll need to gather intelligence about what’s going on out there when normal communication channels might not be available. Hopefully, this information has been helpful to you in impressing the importance of this topic and being properly prepared.
But all I can do is tell you my opinion based on my years of experience in the field. The rest is up to you. If you want to head down this path then you have to start by doing some research on what you want to hear and then spending the money necessary to acquire an appropriate scanner. But it doesn’t end there! Don’t just put that glossy box on a shelf and say you’ll get it out and use it when the time comes. That is the worst mindset to have!
You need to spend some good quality time with your new device learning how to use it properly. That doesn’t mean you have to know everything about everything it does. Start with the basics and make a commitment to use it every day for a few minutes to get comfortable in its operation. Over time, tackle new features and build on that foundation. Teach others in your family as you learn and grow so they’ll be educated as well. Do Internet searches to find answers to problems and YouTube is full of videos that can teach you how to better understand your scanner or HF radio.
Part of the task is also learning to understand what you hear. Listening to public safety agencies is challenging at first because they use code words/numbers and signals to keep communications short and understandable when seconds can count. You’ll need to learn the lingo so you can understand what’s being said. Thankfully the internet is full of resources to help you learn to decipher their language. As you learn and gain experience you’ll be amazed at the amount of information that is flying around there on the radio waves that you use to have no clue about. You were blind but now you see!
If I was to make you a “to do” list, then it would look like this:
- Research the types of radio systems in your area that you want to monitor
- Pick the best scanner model for those systems
- Program your scanner by hand and/or using available software packages
- Buy a better antenna to allow you to receive signals more strongly and receive more signals
- Use your scanner on a daily basis to learn more and more about it a bit at a time
- Use your scanner to listen and learn how agencies communicate so you can glean information
- Plan today for how you are going to keep that scanner running after the power goes out
- Consider buying a portable HF receiver (for news and entertainment from around the world)
Knowledge is power and you’ll get out of it what you put into it. If the world is going to Hades in a handbasket you’ll want to use every resource you can to gather intelligence to make the best decisions possible. If you’ve properly prepared you’ll have an important resource that will give you a leg up on everyone else. You’ll have direct access to information that cannot be filtered by a news agency or denied by the powers that be.
What has been presented here is just the start of the journey. There is so much more and it’s now up to you to decide how far down this path you’re willing to go. May God bless your efforts and may God bless America! – R.W.
Universal Radio portable HF radios
Scanner Master scanner radios and equipment
Mark’s scanner page – Easier to read scanner user manuals
RadioReference radio system database
RadioReference US frequencies
Military radio communications