How do I buy a police scanner? and which kind?
September 27, 2009 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering getting a police scanner, but I'm having a difficult time making sense of all of what I read. Can anyone break it down for me?

I live in Richmond, VA. I contribute to a number of the local community blogs, and have begun to think that a police scanner might be an interesting tool.

Googling for info leaves me totally confused, though. Any help would be very appreciated.
posted by john m to Technology (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A lot depends on what you want to listen to. And where. Police/fire/EMS? Civilian or Military aircraft? Handheld/desktop? According to this page (and assuming that it's up-to-date - there's a statewide reference here), any of the low-end non-trunking scanners from Radio Shack or Uniden would work for you. If you were to add a couple of the local HAM repeaters (for SkyWarn information during bad weather) and maybe some statewide and media frequencies, you'd probably be in good shape.

If, on the other hand, the things you want to listen to take place on trunked systems, you'll need a radio that can track them appropriately, and this is where things can get a little complicated. The band allocations for these radio systems are getting ready to shift, and only a handful of radios sold today can have their firmware upgraded to the new plan. Others will still work, but may not be able to receive systems/agencies that have moved to the new part of the spectrum.

This site has a lot of good reviews and other information - also, you might check to see if there are any local laws that would prevent you from having a scanner in your car. Mefimail me if you want some further info.
posted by jquinby at 6:11 PM on September 27, 2009

Whoops, I missed the trunked system right there for Richmond/Henrico/Chesterfield Counties. If you want to listen in on any of the agencies listed on this page, you'll need a trunk tracking scanner (along the lines of this one from RS). Some online retailers also offer a programming service for radios they sell - you tell them your area and they'll set the whole thing up for you.
posted by jquinby at 6:16 PM on September 27, 2009

You can listen to many Police and EMS feeds online prior to purchasing an actual scanner. This page has Richmond listed.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:18 PM on September 27, 2009

RadioShack workers should be relatively familiar with scanners. Call your nearest store and ask who in the area knows the most and talk to them. When I worked for them, in our area they were really popular so we knew which worked the best, what the local frequencies were etc. Some stores provide a list of the frequencies for free as well.
posted by CwgrlUp at 6:21 PM on September 27, 2009

be aware that the more significant police conversations take place via cell phones.... you'll not hear much on a scanner...
posted by HuronBob at 6:46 PM on September 27, 2009

you'll not hear much on a scanner...

Hmm. I was just listening to traffic in my city about a robbery in progress. Cops use cell phones when they're doing investigation and other fieldwork, but the radio is the primary channel for things that are going down right now. That's how more than one party will be quickly alerted.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:52 PM on September 27, 2009

As you've already seen, there are a lot of different options in radio scanners and what you buy really depends on what you want to listen to and what types of systems are in your area.

Your best bet is to read the forums at Radio Reference. That is pretty much the premier resource for radio scanners. Make a similar post in the Virginia forum and I'd expect you'd get some helpful responses from people in your area. They'd be able to give you advice on a scanner to purchase that covers your local area well. They may also be able to point you in the direction of a local shop that could answer more questions and could have radios available for you to listen to (these still do exist in some areas!).

Good luck!
posted by tommccabe at 7:02 PM on September 27, 2009

There are pretty neat apps for both the iPhone and BlackBerry that let you access streaming police scanners from your cellphone... something to consider!
posted by dcjd at 7:44 PM on September 27, 2009

I use Emergency Radio for the iPhone, it has a TON of scanner feeds, pretty damn good.
posted by Mach5 at 9:10 PM on September 27, 2009

I have a pretty inexpensive one that I was using a lot until a few years ago. One night I was listening to it and there was a police chase going on in the country. For a while the cops were radioing back and forth ( cruiser and headquarters) what was going on. They were going at a very fast speed trying to catch this car. I felt as if I was in the car with them. My heart was pumping for sure. That was kind of neat.

Shortly after that, it stopped working and I found out that the police had switched to another system which rendered mine useless. For police scanning anyways.
posted by Taurid at 9:42 PM on September 27, 2009

If you can afford it, I'd get a trunk tracking scanner that does APCO 25 digital. These are fairly pricey, but a lot of agencies (police especially, fire/EMS somewhat less so) are moving towards P.25 as they upgrade radios. Most P.25 scanners seem to be hovering around $500, at least that I've seen.

Of course, someone might argue that you'd be better to get a cheap FM trunk-tracker now (you can get good used ones for cheap; check hamfests or Craigslist in addition to eBay) and then only upgrading to a digital scanner when the stations you want to listen to switch, in the hopes that the digital scanners will go down in price by then. This has merit, although the prices on P.25 scanners have held pretty steady over the past few years*; you might get burned paying the same $500 that you'd pay today later on, but on top of the $100-150 or so that you'd have paid for a decent FM trunk-tracker in the meantime.

If you're at all in the loop in the city/county government, you might try to find out whether anyone is campaigning for a radio upgrade. If there's nothing in the pipeline and/or their trunked FM system is fairly new, the non-digital scanner might be a safer purchase since you'd probably at least be guaranteed a few years out of it. But if you hear scuttlebutt about a move to digital in the near future, I'd bite the bullet now.

* I started looking for a P.25 scanner back in 2003 or so, and they were $500 back then, too. AFAICT the price hasn't slipped much at all. Given inflation, I guess the prices holding steady are actually a small decrease if you look at it in real-dollar terms, but that's small consolation if (like me) you're used to new technology becoming dirt-cheap within a couple of years of introduction. The radio world moves much more slowly. (Small consolation: radio gear resells much better than computer gear does.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:48 PM on September 27, 2009

Awesome. We used to listen to a police scanner when I lived down in Phoenix back in '95. We'd hear exciting stuff like the brush fires on the outskirts of town(drunk families throwing sparklers down Camelback Mtn on the 4th of July!) or car chases and robberies(both an hourly occurrence!)

Hamfests are a pretty good place to pick one up cheap and you can shoot the breeze with other enthusiasts. I'd wholehearted recommend that. Good luck and have fun!
posted by dragonette1 at 11:09 PM on September 27, 2009

I'm doing the same thing presently. I have owned more radio gear than I can list, and still have a ton of test equipment, and I feel bewildered, so don't feel bad. You'll get infused fairly quickly with teminology, model numbers, etc. and you'll never find the "perfect" radio, IME. You'll get some utility out of just about any choice, however. I am constantly surprised at how much stuff is in the clear, and what goes on out there. has a tool for helping you select. It's a sister site of one of those listed above.

To quickly cut to the chase, the GRE PSR-500/600 cover most of the bases. The 500 is a portable unit with 600 capabilities.

Here are the specs on the two. For a few bucks, you can order one pre-programmed for your city/county. Probably a good idea if you are novice user, which I sense you might be.
posted by FauxScot at 1:44 AM on September 28, 2009

Thanks to everyone that chimed in, this is all helpful.
posted by john m at 12:55 PM on September 28, 2009

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