Why does my Phase 1 scanner still work on a Phase 2 system?

So you have had your trusty old BCD396XT or other Phase 1 scanner for years and it works great. You hear that your system has upgraded to a Phase 2 system but your old Phase 1 scanner still works? What gives?

Here is the skinny on that: Most “Phase 2” systems are actually operating in Phase 1 mode, at least partially. When a system upgrades to Phase 2 not only does the infrastructure have to be upgraded (base station repeaters, controllers etc.) but also all of the mobile and portable radios. Until ALL radios have been upgraded and reprogrammed the system will usually be operating in Phase 1 mode.

Many systems listed in the RadioReference database as “Phase 2” have been heard with Phase 2 operations but still operate as Phase 1, so in reality it is better termed as “Phase 2 Capable”.

Some wide area systems may operate in Phase 2 modes in one area and Phase 1 elsewhere. The huge StarCom21 system in Illinois is a good example of this. In the Chicago area some users use Phase 2 but others are on Phase 1 since the new radios are expensive. Until all those older radios are replaced or reprogrammed the system will operate in a mixed Phase 1 or 2 mode.

This makes your older Phase 1 only scanner usable for at least parts of the system and saves you from having to replace it right away. When they do switch entirely over to Phase 2 then you will need to replace your scanner.

Another question we often get here at the ScannerMaster International Headquarters is how one updates his older Phase 1 scanner to Phase 2. The answer to that is that you don’t. There is no update path for older scanners to Phase 2; you will have to replace it.

Most newer model digital scanners from Whistler and Uniden handle Phase 2, see them at http://www.scannermaster.com/Digital_P25_Phase_II_Scanners_s/708.htm

Signal Strength – It is all relative

So what does Signal Strength really mean? Most scanners these days have a Signal Strength indicator, usually with up to 4 or 5 bars to indicate a strong signal. How are these calibrated? Is 4 bars twice as good as 2? Do I need a full-scale signal to hear my local action?

To answer these questions let’s look at how the scanner comes up with the signal strength indications. Basically it is a representation of the RELATIVE strength of a given signal. The radio reads the voltage present within its circuitry when a strong signal would provide a higher voltage and translates that to the number of bars displayed. A weaker signal would be expected to produce a lower voltage and thus fewer bars.

The big thing to remember is that these meters are not calibrated so they are nothing more than a pretty good ideal if whether a signal is strong or weak. It does not mean that a certain indication (let’s say 3 bars) means a specific signal level. While one can expect that 4 bars is better than 3 (and it usually is) that doesn’t mean that the signal is 33% stronger.

What the signal strength indicates (it doesn’t measure…) is the strength of the signal at the antenna jack. It does not indicate voice quality. One can have a signal that indicates 4 or 5 bars but with a lousy voice quality and hear very little. Conversely an indicated signal strength of just one bar could still present an excellent quality voice signal.

What is also important in using the signal strength indication is the noise floor. Noise Floor is the level of noise present when nothing else is detected. The noise floor is usually higher in city environments than rural ones due to the higher level of electronic equipment generating signals. This includes computers, Wi-Fi, broadcast stations and other transmitters etc. The noise floor is usually higher in homes than fields due to the same issues. Certain specific locations tend to have much higher noise floors than others. Gas stations are notorious for RF noise generated by gas pumps for some reason. Paging transmitters tend to be noisy as well.

So what then does the noise floor have to do with how many bars I get on my scanner? Well, with a high noise floor you have to have the squelch set higher to block the ambient signals. Some places might have a noise floor that generates 2 or 3 bars, that means anything you want to hear has to be stronger than that.

The signal strength indicator also responds to preamps and antenna issues. While a preamp increases signal strength it also increases the noise floor. Connect a better antenna and you should expect more bars. Be careful that you don’t overload the scanner, too much signal will cause more problems than a poor signal will.

Preamps work best in more rural areas that have a low noise floor but will overload scanners on strong signals, especially in high RF areas like cities.

One more note: You will often see a signal strength indication on a trunked system even when it is scanning without stopping. The indicated signal strength is that of the control data channel.

Using a two-way radio as a scanner

One of the more common question we get here at the opulent ScannerMaster Palace is how do I program this (Brand X) radio to my local systems. Usually it is one of those off-shore $40 two-way radio with unpronounceable names that are flooding the market on eBay and in stores.

The basic answer is that you don’t. These radios are intended as Ham radios and are basically toys. Some can be made to receive on VHF and UHF conventional analog channels and even talk on them.  This is not a good thing. First off the build quality on these things is poor. They are designed not for performance but for cheapness. If the radio breaks it usually cannot be repaired.

If your area still uses VHF or UHF analog channels then these might be able to be used to receive your local channels but they cannot do any type of digital or trunked system.

These cheap radios are not ideal for most monitoring anyway. They lack the features scanner buyers have come to expect such as banks, scanlists or quick-keys. They also usually do not support other typical scanner features like CloseCall, Fire tone out, easy field programming etc. They often do not work on aircraft, either civilian or military.

For not much more than you will pay for one of these cheap toys you can get a decent basic scanner like the BC125AT or WS1010 that will run rings around  them with the feature sets.  Our basic scanners start out at under $100 and have way more features than these junk toys.

Basic Troubleshooting – How to fix a silent scanner

So your fancy scanner no longer works. Is it the scanner itself or did your local agencies move to new channels? Today we will discuss ways to find out.

The first thing I tell callers when they say their scanner is dead is to try the local weather channels. Almost everyone is in range of one of the National Weather Service radio stations on 162.400 thru 162.550. If you try each of the 7 channels (listed below) and nothing is heard then there may well be something wrong with the radio. If you have another scanner or weather radio handy try that one. If the other radio works then there is likely something wrong with the first radio.

Here are the weather frequencies that you can check to see if your scanner is working properly:

  • 162.4000
  • 162.4250
  • 162.4500
  • 162.4750
  • 162.5000
  • 162.5250
  • 162.5500

If the weather channel works on your scanner then we should look to programming. If the radio worked before but no longer hears the local police, fire or other agencies you used to listen to then they may have changed frequencies. Several states have recently updated their wide-area radio systems, if you live in Ohio, Indiana or South Carolina there is a great possibility that this is what occurred. Alternately, some agencies have switched to existing regional radio systems such as these states or those in Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan Colorado, Louisiana and Mississippi among others.

The best thing to do is check the RadioReference.com database and forums. If you recently lost your target there is likely someone else who has also. I had a caller the other day from northern Arizona say his police department disappeared, he listened to them over the weekend and then on Monday they were gone. We found that they had just switched to a new P25 digital system. While it was not yet listed in the RadioReference database it was being discussed in the RadioReference forums for Arizona.

If all this fails and you cannot find the target anywhere by searches with the scanner there are still a couple more tricks. Remember that public safety communications systems are expensive. They don’t go out and buy them on a whim. Purchases of that size usually must be approved by the local boards, City Council, County Supervisors etc. Look at these board’s websites for meeting minutes and agenda items. This is all public information and most places these days post them to the web. You can sometimes find all kinds of interesting information on the systems, sometimes even complete technical details, frequencies and talkgroup information get put up there!

Check with your local officers and administrators. While often they might not be technically savvy they might know that “we switched to the County system” or something. Also look for the type of radio they are carrying or have installed in the vehicle. That can sometimes point to the radio system type they are using.

Once you find out what system they are using and the frequencies etc. reprogram or replace your scanner to match.

HP1 vs .HP2

The Uniden BearCat HomePatrol was a revolutionary design that transformed the scanner hobby when it was introduced. Never before was there a scanner that allowed one to just put in a ZIP Code to replace individual channel programming. The success of the HomePatrol led directly to the BCD436HP and the BCD536HP as well as location based scanners from Whistler (GRE and RS).

A couple years ago the HomePatrol line was extended with the introduction of the HomePatrol 2, the original HomePatrol is now called the HomePatrol 1.

So what is the difference between the HomePatrol 1 and 2? Well there are a few differences. The biggie of course is that the HP-2 handles APCO P25 Phase 1 and Phase 2 while the HP-1 only does Phase 1. If your area doesn’t use Phase 2 you could save some money and get the HP-1. The HP-1 has a silver front panel while the HP-2 is black.

In addition the HP-2 (like most other current handheld scanners) chargesits batteries from the USB port instead of using a separate jack like the HP-1. This allows the HP-2 to use common USB chargers of which you probably already have a bunch of. Since it uses common USB chargers it doesn’t come with one. If you are that one guy who doesn’t have a USB charger available we do sell them.

Other than the charger and Phase 2 the HP-1 and HP-2 are almost identical. The same software is used to update and program either radio. You can even take a memory card from one radio and use it in another. If you are using mounting gear the same gear can be used for either radio.

HomePatrol 2:


HomePatrol 1:

Hosting a stream

One of the most popular ways to listen to the local scanner action these days is via a live-streaming service over the Internet. By far the largest source for this is Broadcastify.Com. While this is a great place to listen, it is dependent on someone hosting a scanner for the area you want to listen to. If no one does you can do it yourself. Here is what you need to set up your own feed:

Step 1:    Make sure there is no feed already covering the traffic you wish to stream. If there already is one look at the noted for that feed and see if there is something different that you will do.

Step 2:    If you are not already a RadioReference or Broadcastify member (with user name and password) set up an account. You can set up a free account, paid accounts offer great benefits but are not needed to host a feed. If you are already a member skip this and go to Step 3.

Step 3:    Go to the Broadcastify site and submit a Feed application. They need your information, the channels you plan to stream and some other details. Once you submit your application it takes a few days (usually) for a response, and if approved they provide a code that is entered in your feed software to enable it.

Step 4:    Set up the hardware. This is the computer that you are going to use and the radio itself. You will need an audio cable to connect the computer and radio. If you are using a Uniden scanner you can also connect a USB or serial cable so allow channel tags to be sent along with the radio traffic. See below for the best scanners to be used for feeds.

Step 5:    Set up the software. The software is free from Broadcastify, you can download it there. It is pretty simple to install and set up, print out the instructions that come with it and follow them. If you follow them correctly it will work great!

Step 6:    Adjust the levels. Once your feed is live listen to it and make sure the audio levels are set properly. If the channels you set up are not very active try programming in the local weather channel for a few minutes to use to set the levels properly. Once you have the levels set where they sound best be sure to note the settings in case you need to move something later. Don’t forget to get rid of the weather channel!

What is the best radio for a feed? Well, it is the radio you have that will listen to the traffic you want to stream. Remember, once you commit to hosting a stream that radio must be dedicated to that stream 24/7.

If the radio you use does not have a record jack then you need to set the volume and leave it where it is. Be sure to mark the level with a dab of White-Out in case it gets moved.

For feeds the Uniden BCD15X (analog) and BCD996P2 (digital) are favored by many streamers since they are reasonably priced and have a record jack on the back. The Record jack is ideal for feeds, as the sound level is not affected by the volume control. You set the sound level with the computer’s sound controls and you can use the scanner volume to allow you to listen to the scanner locally without affecting the feed volume. They also support sending channel tags so the listener can see the channel names.

Streaming hints and tricks:

No one likes to hear static, noise etc. Make sure you monitor your stream to be sure that it doesn’t lock up on noise or interference. Make sure the audio levels are good and that the feed sounds good.

How many channels can I stream? The best answer is less is more. If you have a lot of channels or a bunch of real busy ones then the scanner is going to be busy all the time and some channels are going to be missed. Some really busy feeds (like Chicago PD) have just a single channel that is active almost continuously.

What kinds of channels can I stream? These rules are listed in the Terms of Service for the streaming service. Broadcastify has rules against certain tactical or sensitive traffic. Make sure none of the channels you have include the prohibited traffic.

Can I stream 2 radios at the same time? Yes! Set up one radio to the left channel and the other to the right. Possible scenarios are police on one and fire on the other. Make sure you note this in the feed description!

What do I do if the agency doesn’t want me to stream them? Well, that is up to you. Streaming is legal and the agency cannot force you to stop streaming their traffic. They can however add encryption, then it will not be able to be heard at all by anyone.

Broadcastify has a complete set of rules and procedures on it’s page at Broadcastify.com. If you use a different service be sure to read their rules before setting up your feed.