Sunday, February 20, 2000

Scanner fans on the same wavelength

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DAYTON — Small-town Kentucky is full of snoops. Pat Meyers cheerfully admits to being one of them.

        Exhibit A: The police scanner behind her couch. Exhibit B: The police scanner in her bedroom. Both are always on.

        “I love 'em,” says the Dayton woman.

        Just the other morning, she was jolted awake by a dispatch: Woman pushed out a building, man with abrasions. It was 3:30 a.m.

        “I just like to know what's going on,” Mrs. Meyers says.

        There's no entertainment like someone else's troubles, especially if you happen to know the person. For some, listening to a scanner is like watching a reality-based cop show — only better because you recognize the streets.

        “I like all the excitement that goes on. It's interesting,” says Cathy Farrell of Dayton. When she's sitting on her porch in the summer, she moves her scanner to the window.

        There are many types of listeners in small towns. Parents tune in to keep track of wayward teens. Shut-ins take comfort in cops' voices. Then there are the “squirrels” — citizens who love to feel as if they're part of the action.

        “They're always jumping around with nothing in particular to do,” says Terri Grainger, a former volunteer firefighter in Campbell County.

        Officers can't say how many Northern Kentuckians have scanners. But they see the radios all the time, which can be unnerving.

        Other times, it's helpful.

        “People who listen to scanners will hear us trying to find a location. They'll call in and say, "Look, he missed it, he's on the wrong road,'” says Sgt. Jeff Mayberry of the state police post in Dry Ridge.

        By law, most Kentuckians are barred from keeping scanners in their cars. At home, however, they're perfectly legal. The curious need only find out the frequencies of their local agencies.

        Some of this eavesdropping is more practical than tacky.

        In the country especially, people are too spread out to see much of their neighbors. Still, everyone knows everyone, so sirens cause alarm.

        “If you hear an ambulance out there, it's usually because someone died or someone fell, and it's a way to keep up with the neighborhood,” says Ms. Grainger, who lives in Camp Springs, a rural Campbell County community.

        In Alexandria, Richard Carr once kept horses on a 40-acre farm not far from his house. One stormy night, he and his family were playing cards when the phone rang. It was his brother with some news: “Your barn's on fire.”

        He had heard about it on his scanner.

        In Dayton, Mrs. Meyers has been listening for 15 years. By now, she can simultaneously follow a television movie, a conversation with her husband and a three-alarm fire in Southgate.

        On her street, two other people have scanners, including Cathy Farrell. When something big is going on, they call each other to share information.

        “The fire down at the Dew Drop, that was neat,” Mrs. Meyers says.

        “What about that riot they had down on Third Street that year?” says Ms. Farrell. “That was different. They had Dayton and Bellevue and Fort Thomas and Southgate (police). They were all down there.”

        Real excitement doesn't come too often. The women know this is a good thing — sort of.

        A few weeks ago, someone was hurt along the railroad tracks near their homes. Mrs. Meyers stood outside and directed reporters.

        Says Ms. Farrell: “I was gone that day, gosh darn it.”

        With so many agencies communicating by radio, scanners can get noisy. Early on, Mrs. Meyers learned to block annoying frequencies, such as the school-bus channel in Ohio. Every morning at 6, a squeaky-voiced dispatcher would call her drivers: “Willieeee ... Willieeee ... Where are you, Willie??!!”

        Mrs. Meyers also blocks police chatter out of Cincinnati. When I ask why, she smiles sheepishly.

        “I don't know anyone over there,” she says.

        Karen Samples' column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at (606) 578-5584, or by e-mail at