Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Being a cop husband is one mighty sweet deal! This police radio entertains me with other people’s miseries, we get a free funeral for Marge (God forbid), and I can run background checks on whomever I want!” — Homer Simpson in “The Springfield Connection,” an episode from the sixth season of The Simpsons.
Every time I hear that line, I giggle to myself. The Simpsons today remain a guilty pleasure for me, but the first seven or eight seasons are still gold.
I giggle when I hear that line because I’m a police scanner junkie. My fascination with the police scanner predates my association with newspapers by decades.
It may have been sixth grade — or was it seventh? — when I received a neat radio for Christmas. It was almost a throwback to the old furniture-design radios of the 1930s and 40s, but modern. By that, I mean that not only did it include AM and FM, but it also had bands that could pick up shortwave signals and local radio frequencies such as the police and fire departments.
Bored one night, I decided to check out this local radio frequency dial. Slowly working my way from one end of the bandwidth to the other, I came across a very strong radio signal. “123 XYZ street (I can’t remember the address) report of a disturbance.”
Recognizing XYZ Street as one in my Erie Canal hometown of Rome, my ears perked up a bit. What was this, I thought to myself. After listening for a few minutes, it struck me that I was listening to police dispatchers directing patrols to trouble spots in the city.
Like those first few seasons of The Simpsons, this was pure gold to 12-year-old. Dirty little secrets in my hometown! One of the highlights was listening to an officer requesting assistance because he was watching kids siphon gas out of cars in one of the downtown parking garages. “Karl, which garage are you in?” the dispatcher asked. Karl? Hey, I know him! He played high school hockey with my brother! What fun.
Let me make it clear that I do not enjoy listening to other people’s miseries. Part of the giggling at Homer Simpson is because of the farcical situation in which it’s used. And the Monty Python in me.
I eventually outgrew listening to the police scanner. I think it lasted maybe a couple of weeks. Today, it’s part of the job to keep an ear tuned to the scanners while at work. I joined the newspaper industry in 2001 and within a year I learned plenty of the lingo and codes used by police officers. I also know that when there’s very little chatter going on, there’s very likely something big going down.
Scanners play an important role in every newsroom. It alerts us to trouble that our readers may want to know about. They cue us to mobilize when something big is happening.
Such was the case last Monday when a boat ran into serious trouble off the Somerset shoreline. It started out with a Niagara County dispatcher alerting police units to a boat possibly sinking near the power plant. There was only one call about it, the dispatcher added.
Sometimes when you hear there’s only one call, you’re skeptical that its’ a real emergency. However, when a deputy asked for additional information, the dispatcher said something to the effect of the call only lasted nine seconds, the man said the boat was filling with water, the dispatcher could hear screaming in the background and then the call went dead. And they couldn’t reach the caller when the dispatchers called back.
That didn’t sound too good.
In the next few minutes, the Olcott and Wilson fire companies were in the water with their boats. Sheriffs deputies were racing toward the scene. Border patrol and the Coast Guard were on the way.
Minute after agonizing minute went by as we waited for word. Where were they? About 3/4 of a mile off shore. Any sign of them? How far out are the boats and helicopters?
It seemed like forever but in reality it was about 25 minutes before all seven who had been on board were located, alive and safe. A little banged up, but otherwise alright.
That was the lead front page story last Tuesday. Some of the details we heard on the scanner weren’t mentioned in other news reports. Misery isn’t fun. But a happy ending from a very scary situation is a nice story to tell. If it weren’t for the police scanner, we would have missed it.John J. Hopkins is managing editor of the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. His column appears on Sundays. Contact Mr. Hopkins at email@example.com.