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Radio Reference is a site that I really love.

English: Uniden BCT-15 scanner in its mounting...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s one of the few sites left on the internet that provides real “value for the money”… You go there and you get a useful feature, and it’s still free.

Better yet, a proliferation of “scanners” on iDevices and Androids owes quite a bit to Radio Reference, since most of these apps are powered by scanner feeds from Radio Reference. The developers (for the most part) put a pretty interface on it and whipped up a cool player that looks like a two-way radio so they can charge a few bucks for it.

Radio Reference is powered by feed providers. These are folks that have a scanner someplace that they connect to a computer, which in turn streams the audio from the scanner to the Radio Reference media servers, where people can then listen to the live streams any time they want.

I’m a feed provider. My local area wasn’t covered by any other scanners, and I had the equipment around, so I put a scanner up. My reasoning was more selfish than anything though. Now when I see a cop car fly past my house with lights on, I can just open an app on my phone, as opposed to leaving the comforts of my couch or deck to find a scanner and listen in.

Radio Reference brings an interesting development to those working in public safety. I used to worry about a few people around the neighborhood listening to my transmissions. Now, anyone with an internet connection can listen to my transmissions, regardless of their location on the globe.

This became evident recently with the active shooter situation at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) hospital here in Pittsburgh. An hour into the incident, the “City of Pittsburgh Police, Fire, and EMS” feed had roughly 2500 listeners… And then it went silent.

That’s actually a bit of an understatement. It disappeared altogether. Not only did the audio feed stop streaming from the Radio Reference servers, but the entire entry for the feed disappeared from the web site as well.

The problem was later resolved. The feed provider had all of the frequencies from a standard City of Pittsburgh radio programmed into the scanner. This included “Tac” channels, which the swat/cert/sert teams eventually chose to operate on. After updating his scanner and (I imagine) working with the site administrators, brought the feed back online in all of it’s glory.

From the outside looking in, it appears that administrators on the site were listening to the feed, heard what was going on, and pulled the plug.

My opinion, modest as it may be, is that it was an innocent mistake, which in turn was ‘caught’ by an observant administrator type at Radio Reference, and then pulled in a hasty attempt to ensure sensitive information was not shared with the wrong people. Again, my modest opinion is that there was no malicious intent anywhere in that chain of events.

I think it raises some interesting issues. It’s pointed out some gray areas that need to be cleared up in the Feed Provider terms of service. More importantly I think it highlights the fact that the world is becoming a smaller place thanks (again) to technology.

I also genuinely and whole heartedly would like to say “Thank you”, as well as “Job well done” to every public safety employee that responded to this incident. From all accounts, the people involved were nothing short of amazing and professional, and the incident could have been much worse.

With the disclaimer out of the way, I would like to point out a criticism which is not limited to Pittsburgh or Allegheny County, and more directed to public safety as a whole. Think about what you’re broadcasting, and where you are broadcasting it.

The plug was pulled on the feed for good reason… Tactical teams were operating on a regular, unsecured, unencrypted frequency with no safeguards in place. If I had to speculate, I would guess the decision was made quickly, in the midst of many other life and death decisions, and wasn’t given much thought besides the availability of the channel in question.

I hope that moving forward this incident can help illustrate the need for a well thought out communications infrastructure, and strategy.  Also remember, it may not just be that old guy in the creepy apartment with his cat listening to the scanner anymore, it has potential to be the globe that’s listening to your radio traffic.

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Author: Steve Norcup

Steve Norcup is a twenty something I.T. manager for a medium size company based in West Mifflin, PA.

His work is technology, his passion is photography, and his opinions are at times controversial but always thoughtful and genuine.

Tierone Photography is a budding photography company he is working on growing in his free time. Don’t forget to take a look at, or find them on Facebook