Scanners entertaining, but not intended to be
As popular as shows like “America’s Most Wanted,” “Cops” and “The World’s Scariest Police Chases” are, it’s no wonder that police scanners have caught on as a big home entertainment item. They’re particularly popular among the elderly, perhaps because the elderly average more time at home than youngsters.
Scanners have even gone online. Live feeds on the computer make it possible to listen to emergency traffic in, say, Los Angeles and New York City.
The downside is police scanners spread misinformation, tap into consistently morbid communications and can be used to the benefit of criminals – it is illegal to have a mobile scanner in one’s automobile.
While newspapers are criticized for carrying a disproportionately high volume of news about crime and catastrophe, scanners allow us to listen in on emergency workers who deal with these things all the time.
The stories don’t have happy endings. They don’t have endings at all. The last thing a listener is likely to hear about a patient in respiratory arrest on the way to the hospital is just that. Will they start breathing again? Who knows.
Also, newspapers are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, even in quotes. Police and emergency workers don’t have to be accurate in their emergency communications. They have to deal with whatever information is available, and it’s often misleading. Scanners relate a great deal of speculation or misinformation that could get overzealous listeners in trouble.
When journalists do that in the newspaper it’s called libel, but when it’s done by word of mouth, it’s slander.
An example of scanner misinformation:
A recent communication from a dispatcher to emergency medical services personnel reported that a man with a nearly severed arm was driving himself to an ambulance station in Harrison County. Later, a communication from EMS reported that the man’s injury had been bandaged and he was driving himself to a specialist.
What was the extent of the injury? Who knows, but it’s safe to say his arm was well short of severed. Did I mention the man was driving while calling the dispatcher on a cell phone?
Repeating an anecdote like this is harmless, but when misleading information about criminal activity airs on the scanner it could cause someone a lot of harm if taken as fact.
(Another severed arm comment was broadcast about a year ago. An officer responding to an accident scene reported the appendage was lying in the road. The comment prompted complaints from listeners. Scanner content isn’t tailored to recreational listeners with weak stomachs. Cardiac and respiratory arrest may not sound as exotic, but they are unsettling, too.)
Of course, scanners do have their merits.
A lot of people listen for entertainment. It’s not much different than reading True Crime novels or watching reality television. It’s a free country, and just listening doesn’t hurt anyone, but listen responsibly.
I would argue that listening to a non-stop barrage of transmissions related to burning homes, accident victims, and sick and dying elderly individuals is a poor way to spend one’s sunset years, but it’s a personal decision.
Scanners are a good source of relevant emergency information. Things like tornado or severe thunderstorm warnings are broadcast over scanners, and the information is very local, giving them advantages over radio and television. Scanners are like emergency warning sirens for people who live out of town.
Journalists use scanners to stay on top of crime and breaking news events. It beats ambulance chasing.
Anytime a check can be made on our law enforcement officers to both protect them and protect those of us without arrest powers, it’s probably a good idea. Scanners provide a little more public oversight of law enforcement without costing tax dollars or getting in the way of officers trying to do their jobs.
So, if you are going to listen, remember that what you’re hearing is often very preliminary information. It’s often neither fiction nor fact.