Live tweeting police scanners

Nobody could have missed the tragic incidents in Boston this week, but one thing that caught my eye was the live tweeting of what police and other emergency responders were saying over the radio, and how the police asked for this to stop (of course it did not). As readers of the blog know, I’ve had my own run-in with the intersection between a police scanner (in this case, a SAR frequency), Twitter and the media.

My first observation is this; the problem is about to go away. There are digital packet radio systems on the market that make it effectively impossible for someone to scan the frequency. Of course these systems have their own problems; short range, complicated, very expensive, not interoperable with other systems (almost all of them are proprietary), and don’t work really well in the wilderness. These flaws mean that they are not what I would call a true wilderness SAR tool, but they will probably be forced on us over the next 10 years in one way or another. I could also list the benefits of such systems, that that’s for another post.

I’m speculating here, but I think that either Boston Police or the FBI actually have these packet radio systems in place. If a small place like Vancouver and several of the outlying police agencies have such a system, then Boston certainly does. If they don’t then it’s probably because of the expense, but let’s speculate some more. Could it be that they had an encrypted radio system in place but were forced to turn it off to interoperate with the massive influx of FBI and military assistance? A bit of a side story, but you can see that relying on technology often has these sorts of pitfalls.

This is the key; listening in on what the police are saying during an evolving situation is fun, and vicarious, but it is not news. You might think that the people on the scene are the ones with the best, first hand knowledge of the situation, but that is not always the case.  It is not news in that it is not confirmed, and neither is it known to be accurate. If an individual decides that it is worth broadcasting, that’s up to them, but it’s a different matter when the mainstream media start picking up the story.

I have so many examples I could share about how reports from on scene witnesses of incidents, or broadcasts from trained SAR members turned out the be inaccurate when examined closer. In the heat of the moment, and the excitement of finding a lost person, the initial reports (within seconds of contact) are always highly suspect. One of the most common reports from the field is the broadcast “We’ve made voice contact!” — only to find, a few minutes later, that they were talking to another SAR team. Others downplay the severity of injuries which become more apparent on performing a full first aid assessment. Some exaggerate injuries. Some confused reports are impossible to decipher.

In the case I mentioned above, a SAR responder had come across the subject who had been lost for almost three days. She stated, almost immediately after contact, that the subject was alive and well, long before a first aid assessment could be performed. This is the message that went out over Twitter. However, it is known that subjects exposed for that length of time can be dehydrated, and in a fragile state, so the first thing we needed was someone with higher level medical training to get on scene and decide treatment and transport priorities.

The frenzy of reporting was much tamer for my little incident than for Boston, or perhaps Elliot Lake, but the kind of pressure put onto a situation because of “leaked” and not validated information can be immense. I’d encourage people to do their part, or to put it another way, to NOT take part, in this vicarious disaster porn.



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One comment on “Live tweeting police scanners
  1. DarcyB says:

    and in Canada at least it is illegal to retransmit (post) the contents of the the radio message to a 3rd party. Beyond that there is a whole wealth of reasons both for and against the use of encrypted radio communications by law enforcement. Ignoring any of the technical details, the pros are of course protecting the privacy of those involved, and the safety of the respondents. Likewise against, the benefits are nearly the same by protecting the safety of the subjects, as open systems make for an easier accountability by those who serve us to the public at large.

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