When I was a young reporter covering the cops beat, my editor made me bring home the police scanner on weekends. He didn’t seem to understand I needed days off and couldn’t be shackled to the scanner forever — and I didn’t understand how busy are our first responders.
For serious calls, such as structure fires, violent crime, car crashes, flash floods and the like, the dispatch would start with a long beep known as a code that let responders know something bad had happened and to prepare to head out.
I eventually learned to tune out the more routine calls, but that long beep would set me on edge. I can’t tell you how often I left the house between midnight and daylight to gather information on one tragedy or another.
I eventually gained enough longevity to hand off scanner duty to younger reporters, just in time to save my marriage.
Fast-forward a few decades and technology now gives reporters access to dispatches almost in real time. We know within minutes what the call is about, where first responders are headed and whether it’s worth the effort to go to the scene. Usually it isn’t, not because real drama isn’t unfolding and somebody has been or could be hurt, but because whatever happened is nobody’s business.
And believe me when I tell you, a lot of drama happens in Moab that’s nobody’s business.
This fact becomes apparent every Monday morning after a weekend of neglected emails. Ten, twenty, even thirty 911 calls await me and I listen to every one. This is a stunning number for a town so small. Sure, you can get thirty 911 calls in five minutes in the big city, but this isn’t a big city with big city resources. Search and Rescue, EMS, law enforcers, firefighters, they all stay busy.
It isn’t the dramatic rescue of tourists who get themselves into trouble that weighs on my mind. House fires are rare. Auto crashes that don’t result in serious injury or death are rather mundane. Drug busts? As common as snow in January.
It’s the calls for people in crisis who really need help that get my attention.
You always get the address if they have it, if they’re male or female, their age and what the problem seems to be. No names are divulged, ever, and while that’s a very good policy, I’m always left wondering: Did the 51-year-old man who was in a seizure for five minutes come out OK? How about the 48-year-old woman who keeps passing out? The child who choked on something? The hiker who was incoherent and dehydrated? The elderly woman with intense abdominal pain? The local girl who broke both legs in a fall on the trail?
I don’t spend a lot of time wondering because that’s not productive, but I do spend a few minutes hoping they all survived. It would be unfair and unprofessional to burden first responders for information when my curiosity is purely personal.
Back in the old days, when technology was less secure than it is today, Scannerland could be pretty dang hilarious. Two instances come to mind:
In the early 1990s in Nevada, it wasn’t uncommon for police scanners to pick up CB radio traffic, primarily used by truckers. The dispatcher was interrupted mid-sentence by a man with the CB “handle” of “Love Machine” who was telling his mistress exactly what he was going to do to her when he “rolled into Neon City” at about midnight.
He went into great detail and explained to the woman — you could only hear his side of the conversation — he was going to perform physical acts I didn’t even know were legal at the time. She must have been a willing partner because he was excited.
The entire newsroom got a laugh out of that one.
The second call I remember involved a single mom with an 11-year-old daughter who was ignoring her mother. The following isn’t verbatim, but it is close.
Dispatcher: 911. What’s your emergency.
Caller: I want you to send the police to my house for my daughter.
Dispatcher: Is she hurt?
Caller: Not yet she isn’t.
Dispatcher: What’s the problem?
Caller: It’s 8:30, the sun’s down, the streetlights are on and she won’t come in from riding her bike.
Dispatcher: She’s in the neighborhood?
Caller: Yep. She just keeps riding right by the house and every time she just smiles when I yell at her to come inside. I’m missing “Twin Peaks.”
Dispatcher: The TV show?
Dispatcher: That little brat. I’m sending SWAT.