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.

Questions? We have answers!

Here are a few of the common questions we get here at ScannerMaster’s World Headquarters as well as the answers we provide. If your question isn’t listed please call us and ask.

Q: Do you have scanners that will allow me to hear Encrypted/Scrambled communications?

A: Nope! There are 2 reasons why we don’t sell scanners that work on encrypted channels. First of all it is illegal. Our people like sleeping in their own beds at night and not on cots at the county jail. Second, even if it were legal the technology just isn’t there to break modern encryption, especially on a device sold to the public.

Q: Do you sell scanners that can hear cell phones?

A: Nope, sorry, for the same reasons we do not sell encryption capable scanners, it is illegal and impractical. Years ago one could clip a diode and open certain scanners for the old analog cell phones but those days are long past.

Q: Can you tell me the frequency for my hometown police department?

A: Sure we can. You can also find the freqs at www.radioreference.com

Q: Are you guys the same guys at RadioReference? Broadcastify? Uniden? Whistler?

A: No, we are ScannerMaster. We are friends with these other companies and do business with them but we are all separate companies. We sell products from Uniden, Whistler and others but if you need support beyond what we are authorized to do we will refer you to the right place. We can often answer a quick question here and there about these places but we have no access to their files.

Q: Can you fix my scanner?

A: We do offer a programming service and programmed replacement SD Cards for ZIP Code scanners but we do not do repairs or sell internal parts. Newer scanners should be sent to Uniden or Whistler for authorized repairs, One great source for older scanners repairs and parts is G&G Communications, they can be reached at 585-768-8151 or http://www.gcomradio.com

Q: Can my scanner be upgraded to DMR/ProVoice/NXDN?

A: Well, that depends on the scanner you have. Here is a list of the scanners that can be upgraded for these modes. Some of these can change in the future so be sure to check back! If you have an older scanner then it cannot be upgraded for these modes.

Maker            Model             DMR               ProVoice        NXDN            Notes

Uniden            BCD996P2     Paid                 Paid                 No

Uniden            BCD325P2     Paid                 Paid                 No

Uniden            BCD536HP    Paid                 Paid                 No

Uniden            BCD436HP    Paid                 Paid                 No

Whistler          TRX-1            Free                 No                   Free     Via Firmware Update

Whistler          TRX-2            Free                 No                   Free     Via Firmware Update

Whistler          WS1095          Free                 No                   No       Via Firmware Update

Whistler          WS1098          Free                 No                   No       Via Firmware Update

Whistler          WS1080          Free                 No                   No       Via Firmware Update

Whistler          WS1088          Free                 No                   No       Via Firmware Update

GRE                PSR800           Paid                 No                   No       Only thru Whistler

RS                   PRO668          Paid                 No                   No       Only thru Whistler

RS                   PRO18            Paid                 No                   No       Only thru Whistler

WiFi on BCD536HP. How does it work?  What you can and can’t do with it.

The Uniden Bearcat BCD536HP is the only scanner that has the capability of being directly controlled by WiFi. By using the included WiFi dongle one can connect a smart phone or tablet to the scanner and listen to and control the scanner with the device. There are some other uses for the WiFi dongle as well.

Uniden has provided free “Siren” software (available for free via the Apple iTunes store or Google Play Store) to allow you to use your smart device as a scanner controller. You can even use this as a remote head for the scanner if mounted in a vehicle or to listen to your scanner from the patio or another room of the house for a scanner installed in the home. Some third party software allows you to use the WiFi feature to connect the canner to the computer without the need to plug in a cable.

There are a few things that the WiFi dongle will not work for, this includes database and firmware updates and other programming.

The Wifi dongle is designed specifically to work with your home or office WiFi network. While we have read of people using it for remote access this requires such networking tools as VPN, if you know how that works you probably can figure it out. Sorry, we cannot help with notworking issues like this!

To use the WiFi feature you need to understand the two modes involved; Infrastructure and Access Point.

Infrastructure Mode allows your scanner to connect to your home or office WiFi. This then allows you to connect to the scanner via third-party software like ProScan or RadioFeed or to the Siren application.

To get to Infrastructure Mode use the following steps:

Press Menu then select WiFi Setup>Select WiFI Mode>Infrastructure Mode

The radio will look for local access points and list them. When it displays the list select your router’s SSID name.

Then enter your password for the WiFi access point. This is the same password you would use for setting up any other WiFi device on your network. To enter the password you scroll thru the letters and use the 4 and 6 buttons to move the curser.

Access Point Mode allows you to connect you scanner to a smart phone or tablet (iOS or Android) using the free Siren software. You would use this when you are not in range of your WiFi system, such as when the radio is mounted in a vehicle. This allows you to use a phone or tablet as sort of a remote control head for the scanner.

In Access Point Mode the 536 acts as an Access Point and provides an SSID which you can change or leave at the default. You then connect your phone or tablet to that WiFi SSID and enter in the IP address in the Settings of the device. The IP address can be found in the WiFi settings on the scanner.

Siren is the free app available at the Apple iTunes Store for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch’s. It is also available for Android devices at the Google Play Store.

Siren is a neat way to use your 536 scanner but there are limits to it. It will only work with the 536, and it has limited abilities for control. It can set the range, select Quick Keys, set the squelch and start and reply the recording features but that is pretty much all she wrote. There is also a 2-3 second delay in hearing the audio compared to the radio itself.

The WiFi feature on the 546 is unique and useful as long as you know its limits.

Force Write full Database (HP1, HP2 BCD436 and BCD536)

When updating a HP series (HomePatrol 1 and 2, BCD436HP and BCD536HP) scanner one of the update is the database that the ZIP Code feature relies on. If the database has old or incorrect data then it can affect whether you will be able to hear your target. If you update the database on a regular basis you can help ensure that you will hear what you want.

When you update the database within Sentinel (the free software provided by Uniden to support these scanners) it doesn’t actually update the database on the scanner itself. You have to “Force-Write” the database to the scanner. This is easy; after you “Update Master HPDB” in the Update menu just click the “Force-Write Full Database” button on the Write to Scanner (or Write to HomePatrol) item in the Scanner (or HomePatrol) menu.

This ensures that the Master HomePatrol database on your scanner is up to date.

Weird Funkiness with scanners: 536 Cuts out

We here at ScannerMaster get calls from customers often to explain some sort of weirdness happening with their scanner. Usually we can figure it out pretty quick but once in awhile we get stumped. When we get stumped it sticks in our craw for a while until we have an epiphany and figure it out. We had one just like that earlier this week.

A customer called and his brand new BCD536HP was acting all ornery. Every couple of seconds it would stop hearing and the signal strength meter would fluctuate. Most of the time this is caused by the Priority or CloseCall features. We determined it was neither of these but still couldn’t figure out what it was.

Here is why we were looking at these features:

Priority, when enabled, will check specified channels every couple of seconds for activity on it. If there is activity it will divert the radio from what is was doing to listen to the Priority channel.

CloseCall will check for strong signals in the area and if detected will divert the radio to the frequency the CloseCall feature detected. If the feature is set to CloseCall Priority then it will cause the radio to stop hearing a channel for a bit, just like the customer complained.

So when we made sure both Priority and CloseCall were off we were flummoxed. Well, I was flummoxed; he was frustrated. I am sure there were some other words starting with “F” being bandied about as well.

I started going thru the menus on the radio in the office (We have one of just about everything here at ScannerMaster) and eventually dug thru all the menus and submenus. Eventually we found the culprit: The Weather Alternate Priority. Somehow the customer got this turned on. As soon as we turned it off the radio worked great again! We had one happy customer and a relieved representative.

The Weather Alert Priority tells the radio to check the weather channels every few seconds and if it detects the standard 1050 Hz. tone used to signify a Weather Alert it will divert the radio to that alert.

New scanners have a ton of neat features but sometimes they can be too smart. Some of these features can cause aggravation when that feature is not needed.

When the data isn’t right: How to get your database scanner working.

So you went out and bought one of these fancy new database scanner like the HomePatrol, BCD436/536 or a Whistler TRX and set it up. The problem though is that you are not hearing your local channel that you expected. There are a couple things to try. The first is to double check that you have the location and Service Types set properly. If these are correct, did you accidentally lockout (“Avoid”) the Channel, Department or System?

If you have ruled out these issues take a look at the RadioReference Database at RadioReference.com. This is where the frequency information comes from. If the channel is listed there but not included in your radio then you need to update the database on your radio. Make sure you have installed Sentinel (Uniden) or EZ-Scan (Whistler) and run the update procedure for these scanners. After updating the database make sure you copy (“Write”) it to your radio and try it again.

If you find that the channel is not listed in the RadioReference database then you will have to do some detective work. If you know what the frequency or talkgroup is then be sure to submit it to RadioReference so it can be added or corrected in the database. All you need is a RadioReference user name and password, either a free or paid membership will work. In the meantime it can be added to a Favorites List or Scanlist via the software.

If you do not know what the channel’s frequency or talkgroup is then you will need to do a little more work. If you know they use a trunking system then create a Favorites List and set it to Trunked Search (if on a Uniden). If you have a Whistler then create a ScanList with that system and add a Wildcard to it. This allows you to listen to all activity on the system and when you hear the traffic you want make sure you note the talkgroup number for future reference. You can submit that talkgroup number to RadioReference to update the database and also add it directly to the Favorites List or ScanList with the appropriate name.

On conventional (non-trunked) systems you can do a couple things. First off, check the FCC license for the agency you want to listen to. Most of the time you can do this from the RadioReference database page, just click on the call sign. Since the RadioReference Database only contains information that is verified a new channel might be listed on the license but not included in the main database since no one has reported it as verified yet.

If the channel you seek is not listed there, check licenses for nearby communities, the local County or a regional dispatch center. The actual license might be held by another agency that does dispatch for your town.

Still cannot find it? Now it is time to get serious! Your scanner has a “Search” function. Learn how to set up a Limit Search. Check the most common scanner bands used in your area and set up a search for that band. Lockout the channels as you hear them if they are not your local agency, checking the RadioReference Database as you find them.

Regardless of how you find them be sure to share the knowledge. Submit your finds to the RadioReference Database system so that others in your area can listen in and so that future versions of the database include it. Remember that the database is updated weekly, usually Sunday or Monday. Submissions might take a little while to get processed however so wait to the following week after you receive the notification that your submission has been worked.

Favorite Scanner: BCD436HP

The BCD436HP (commonly referred to as the “436“) is Uniden’s premier handheld scanner. It takes the Location Based Scanning system from the HomePatrol and merges it with the huge feature set of the BCD325P2. You get the best of both worlds; easy ZIP code based scanning and the flexibility and functionality of a full featured professional scanner.

Remember the commercials for the candy where some guy got his chocolate into another guy’s peanut butter? Well, imagine mixing a HomePatrol 2 with a BCD325P2, instead of a tasty peanut butter cup the end result is a BCD436HP.

The HomePatrol’s ease of use required the removal of several key features that were present on other scanners, this included things like CloseCall, Limit Search, Fire Toneout and keyboard programming. While most HomePatrol purchasers do not need these features there are others that want them. The “436” restores all of these features and more and keeps the Location Based scanning of the HomePatrol. With Phase 2 capability, the 436 works almost everywhere in the USA and Canada, just by putting in a location.

The 436 also now allows one to listen to ProVoice. These are used in a few areas of the country and until recently could not be heard by any scanner. With the extra-cost ProVoice option you can now hear unencrypted ProVoice digital systems such as used in San Antonio or Oklahoma City among other areas.

The 436 also has the ability to record conversations heard on the scanner to it’s built-in SD Card, allows analysis of trunked radio systems and more. You can program it on the fly like you would older scanners, use a computer to program it or just let the radio use it’s internal database.

The 436 comes with the free Sentinel software to update the firmware and database (Windows only, sorry Mac dudes!) as well as rechargeable batteries, a USB cable and antenna. You charge the batteries with a USB charger, available at extra cost or just use the one from your cellphone or other USB device. It covers most scanner frequencies from 25 to 1300 MHz. and works on AM, FM, FMW, P25 Digital Phases 1 and 2 as well as ProVoice digital (requires extra cost key for ProVoice). Optional ARC software is also available for control and advanced programming.

The BCD436HP is available from ScannerMaster at BCD436HP or just call us at 800-SCANNER.

Uniden Scanners

When bad things happen to good scanners: SD Card Corruption

All of the various “Zip Code” type scanners such as the Uniden HomePatrol, BCD436HP or BCD536HP, Whistler WS 1080/1088/1095/1098 or the GRE and RadioShack versions use a Micro-SD Card to store the database and recordings. This SD Card is much like a disk drive without moving parts, it can be written to and read by a computer or a device; in this case your scanner.

Occasionally these cards can get corrupted which causes them to stop functioning. The scanner will display an error message and will not operate until you repair or replace the SD Card. Thankfully this is not usually a serious issue and rarely results in anything other than some annoyance. The worst that can happen is that you lose your Favorites Lists and any recordings you may have on the card.

First let’s talk about WHY this happens. Most of the time it is due to the power being removed from the radio abruptly. These scanners are basically small computers and, like all computers, they need to be shut down properly. By doing so the radio has a chance to finish writing information to the SD Card. If the power is removed before this is done then an incomplete or corrupted file may be left. When you turn on the radio the next time it doesn’t know what to do with the file and displays the error message. While this does not occur every time the radio is improperly shut down, it only has to happen once to ruin your day.

Now there is always the possibility that the card or even the radio itself is defective but that is very rare.

What can you do to prevent this from happening to you? The best thing you can do is to make sure you turn the radio off before removing power to it. If you have it mounted in a vehicle be sure to turn off the radio by use if the volume/power knob before starting the car or turning off the ignition. If the radio loses power while still turned on then the card can get corrupted. Same goes for portable radios. do not pull the batteries unless the radio is turned off.

OK, my card got corrupted, is my scanner dead? Usually no. These cards can usually be reformatted and the database rebuilt. Even if the card is shot it can be replaced and the new card set up for your radio. You can get replacement (or spare) Micro SD Cards almost anywhere.

What can you do if this occurs to you? First make sure the card is really corrupt, some times they are just loose. Remove the card and reseat it, making sure that it clicks into place. When you turn on the radio, if it works then you are back in business. If you still get the error then you will likely have to reformat the card.

Of course the easiest way to get past this is to let us fix it for you! Just download, print and fill out the form at http://www.scannermaster.com/v/vspfiles/files/pdf/homepatrol-servies-order-form.pdf. Send it to us with the radio and we will do the rest!

To reformat the card it is best to use an application specifically for this. You can use a free program available from https://www.sdcard.org/downloads/formatter_4/. Download the one for your version of Windows and install it. You can use an SD Card reader if you want or leave the card in the radio and connected to the computer in Mass Storage Mode. If you reformat it using Windows directly it may not be done in the proper format. Sorry Mac guys; you need Windows for this!

Once reformatted you need to reinstall the database. On Uniden scanners this is done as follows:

1: In Sentinel under the Home Patrol menu select Clear User Data, click on the Display All Drives box.

2: Be sure to select the correct drive letter then click OK. (You do not want to erase your C Drive!)

3: Run Sentinel on the computer and select the Update Master HPDB option in the Update Menu.

4: In Sentinel under the HomePatrol menu select Write to HomePatrol .You may need to select that drive again, but it will not show the serial number of the radio this time.

5: Eject the card and put it back into your scanner (if not already there). When you turn on the scanner you should be all set. You many need to reset your location, Service Types etc.

Of course this requires that you have Sentinel running in a Windows computer. If you don’t have Sentinel installed (it comes on the SD Card…) you can download it from Uniden’s website.

Whistler, GRE and RS scanners use slightly different procedures, check the manual for your radio for these.

 

Favorite Scanner: Uniden HomePatrol   

This weeks Favorite Scanner comes from our Programming Manager Greg Jolly. Greg likes the Uniden HomePatrol best for its ease of use.

The Uniden HomePatrol was introduced several years ago to address several concerns. Many people wanted to listen to their local police, fire and other radio activity but did not know (or want to know) how to program scanners. The HomePatrol brought a whole new dimension to scanning: instead of learning frequencies you just put in your ZIP Code.

The HomePatrol really makes Greg happy, being the ScannerMaster Programmer it makes his job easier! It just requires a periodic update to keep it humming along.

The HomePatrol 2 was introduced recently to cover those areas using “Phase 2” digital, otherwise it works the same as the original HomePatrol.