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Thursday, 18 February 2016

How I got in to radio - Ben Longden

From Ben Longden
Freelance television news camera operator
Echuca, Victoria

For me it was as a young kid of about ten, learning morse from my Dad.  Then building crystal sets like he did in the PoW camp.  I wasn't bad at morse.. 30 words a minute.

A few years later we lived in Moree, where the then Overseas Telecommunications Commission  or OTC had a ground station where half  of the international phone calls came in and out of the country, and we lived in the OTC area of town, so I had radio techs all around me. It wasn't long before I was building radios, repairing transistor sets and building sound amplifiers and designing RIAA preamps for my stereos.

Later, moving to Parkes in NSW I bought my first scanner a few years after watching the Ed Asner TV drama about running a newspaper, and the chief photographer had a huge crystal scanner setup in his car. I bought a Tandy 20 channel set that was about A4 in size and 10cm high.... and dialled in the local frequencies, then shortly after got a job as a news photographer. Shortly after that, the local plods learnt not to say "we found a dead body" over the air, when it was usually an elderly person passing of natural causes...

While the Tandy is still used, I have gone through a handful of portables, and had small sets mounted in the cars.  Now with the introduction of expensive digital, its a portable set only. The funny thing is, over the years 99% of plod radios were with car rego checks and calls to domestics. Very rarely did we hear about something exciting. That came from the fire brigade.

In the early days of my news career, the fire station was 50m up the hill from the newspaper office, so once I heard the pager tones over the air, I walked up the hill to meet the fireys arriving at the station Usually it was the alarm at Woolies going off. This was in the days when each station looked after its own comms centre and calls. Of course this meant that you could seriously listen to the set, as the voice over the scanner was local, with news relevant to your area.

Now, with a centralised dispatch and comms centre,  you have to filter 99% of the radio noise out.  It is an huge task to do, and creates so much noise in an office where people are concentrating. The Country Fire Authority in Victoria have made my monitoring job a shipload easier with the introduction of their Fire Ready application.  They actually tell me where the fires are, and as they supply an audio feed from ESTA to Broadcastify, I can listen in on my smartphone.

Bliss.

Where do I see scanning in a few years?  Well, in a pickle really. Most govt emergency organisations do not like having their activities monitored. So the cops are going encrypted,  the Ambos and fireys are convinced that digital is better, totally forgetting the lessons of digital TV reception, and the SES is in for the ride as well, because they got told they had to. I had a chat with a highway patrol officer who said he couldn't wait for encryption, and I pointed out that drug  busts were conducted in such secrecy right up until the moment the meth lab doors were smashed that not even the local chief inspector was given the heads-up. No. its the hoon kids that annoy them, as the kids use scanners to monitor police to see if their skid meet is about to be raided.   I said to the officer that a bit of detective work would reveal where the skid meets were and when.. and that if they applied the same "no comms" rule they would have success.  I suggested they would have even more success if they covertly videoed the event, especially the gate to the skids,  as the cars would still have their rego plates on, as they had just come off the road. He agreed that 99% of the radio traffic was routine car and driver details... but this would reduce with the introduction of laptops in cars.

In Victoria, listening to the Ambos is boring.  The crew get the initial call, including address and details via their pager.  They use the crossband portables mostly to relay codes for arriving on scene etc.  Very rarely will you hear anything decent.

As for SES, well, the callout is the same as the CFA and ambulance; details via pager, and brief updates over the radio.

My boss at Nine News has a media arrangement with Victoria Police.  The media unit have a special syndicated feed listing callouts for various incidents, and this is available only to select media outlets, and is usually one PC per organisation. 
Hacking into this would be nice, but I cant see that being viable, as  any computer would leave a digital trail leading directly to the user who would then be in a deep pile of poo.

The future of emergency service scanning really is in being able to decode the pager transmissions in real time, and have them available as a PC or smartphone application, along with the applicable broadcastify type audio feed. Of course, the Department of Injustice who administer the emergency services in Victoria would disagree with that.

Then you have aviation.  Combine an evening sitting at the viewing area of your favourite international airport with Flight radar 24 on the tablet, and the scanner tuned into all the arrivals and departures frequencies and an evening can go in the blink of an eye.






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