On the air, online: Scanner listeners connect people to emergencies

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Frank Schultz
November 30, 2014

BELOIT--Kelsey Kenney hears the tones coming out of his hand-held police scanner. He immediately types “Janesville” into Twitter on his cellphone.

Each fire and police agency in the county is identified by its dispatch tones. Kenney has memorized the 24 different tones in Rock County, so he knows this one is from Janesville.

By the time the 911 dispatcher is done talking, Kenney has posted a tweet about an accident.

The tweet is posted automatically to Kenney's Facebook page, Rock County Scanner. Soon, followers across the county know what he knows.

Kenney has been doing this for the entire county since 2011. He doesn't get paid, and it's unofficial, but his reporting of what he hears about fires, accidents and crimes has garnered him a following of thousands.

Kenney is one of a new breed of scanner listeners who share what they hear with the public. He is affiliated with Walworth Scanner, which covers the county to the east, and with similar operations in Racine and Kenosha counties.

These scanner listeners are more than hobbyists. They are sources of information for increasing numbers of local residents.

Providing similar services are Beloit Scanner, 815 Stateline Scanner and Rockford Scanner.

Listener to the north

Katie Austin until recently offered a similar Twitter feed about traffic conditions for commuters in the Madison area and surrounding counties.

Austin followed Kenney's Twitter feed to supplement her sources as the traffic reporter for a group of radio stations and for WISC-TV Channel 3. Her territory included main highways in Rock County.

Austin's tweets made her popular because she not only reported delays, traffic jams and weather, but she added dashes of humor. She recently found a new job, but she has been replaced, and the Madison Traffic service she founded continues.

Austin was a traditional traffic reporter until a blizzard struck the region Dec. 8, 2009.

She was deluged with calls from radio stations that wanted to tell listeners what was happening.

She had been sending emails to radio stations but decided if those stations needed it, so would the public. She started posting on Facebook and Twitter.

“I got 100 followers the first day. I was like, wow, people like this,” she recalled.

Austin was a professional journalist, unlike the others in this area, who listen to scanners as a hobby.

Kenney has asked for donations to keep the page going, and he has derived a bit of income by programming people's scanners. Otherwise, it's not a business.

Kelsey Kenney's story

Kenney's Rock County Scanner, like many others, relies on a network of volunteers--called admins--who post calls when Kenney can't.

Kenney has been into radios since his youth, when he and his friends would talk to truck drivers on citizen band radios. He later spent a year with his stepfather and his wife, who were EMTs in Lake Delton, so he spent a lot of time at the fire station.

As an adult, he liked to monitor scanner traffic, and one December day in 2011, it occurred to him that he could share the information on Facebook. In the first month, 10,000 people began following his page.

The number doubled the next year, he said.

Kenney monitors scanner traffic with a hand-held scanner and a fire pager, which he has programmed to get only the channels he needs.

Kenney is a dispatcher for a tow-truck company in Beloit. His boss allows him to monitor the scanner during work hours. He said he spends 17 or more hours a day listening and posting calls.

Kenney said his service is popular even with police and firefighters, who use it in places where radio reception is bad,

News in a flash

Austin found that she had an outlet for a lot of information that never made it into her 30-second traffic reports: big crashes, big snows, roads closed.

People started tweeting to her with traffic situations, sometimes with photos, and she would re-post the information.

Austin followed the tweets of the state Department of Transportation 511 service as she monitored two hand-held scanners and four online scanners feeds, as well as Interstate traffic cameras.

She also heard from family, friends, co-workers and took what she could glean from Twitter and Facebook.

“I don't know how I did traffic before Twitter, to be honest with you,” she said.

In addition to her years in journalism, Austin was an EMT for 10 years, so she knew  what to listen for, she said.

Austin would post news she heard on the scanner that she believed was reliable, such as firefighters shutting down a road, while some other news organizations won't report it until they get official notification.

“People say, “You're the only one I can get information from,'” she said.

She has made mistakes. She once reported an errant dispatch about a motorcycle crash at County Q and K near Waunakee, only to find out that the accident happened miles away at Q and K in Columbia County.

Reliability factor

While Madison Traffic focuses on traffic, Rock County Scanner reports crime and fire calls, as well.

These services put regular people in touch with what's happening with their communities, but they can pose risks and problems.

Dispatchers broadcast information that might be true, partially true or false. They are relying on people who call 911, and those people are not trained emergency responders.

A “shots fired” incident could be a car backfiring, for example. A fire call often turns into a false alarm.

“We give it to you as it happens,” Kenney said. We don't have all the details.”

People with experience in emergency services or news often can sort out what is probably true from what might not be true.

But none of this reporting is like what you'd find in a traditional news broadcast or newspaper. It's faster, but it is rarely verified before it's published.

And it's entertaining for some, as scanner listening has been for generations, notes Kathy Sukus, director of the Rock County (9111) Communications Center.

But police and fire dispatching has gone digital in Rock County and many other locales in recent years, so the old scanners that accessed radio frequencies are no longer of much use.

Some have accused Kenney of prompting people to drive to the scenes of accidents or fires, which can be dangerous. He said people have always done that, and his posts also could keep people away from these scenes.

Serious business

Sukus said she was concerned at the beginning, when Rock County Scanner had a different name that made it sound like an official agency.

Now, Sukus believes Kenney's posts can serve a good purpose, and from what she has seen, he takes care not to post in-progress police calls that could endanger police.

Sukus said she has heard concerns from law enforcement that too many people heading toward an incident can make it difficult for police to separate gawkers from witnesses and can cause traffic congestion.

On the other hand, comments on the Facebook page can help police identify suspects or find witnesses, Sukus said.

“All in all, I'm OK with it. I haven't had too many issues,” Sukus said.

Kenney won't post everything he hears. Embarrassing situations such as lift assists or rectal bleeding will be posted as medical calls.

He also won't post holdup or burglar alarms because he doesn't want anyone rushing into a dangerous situation or for the burglar to know police are coming.

Each operation has its own rules. Lisa Conard of Byron, Ill., who runs 815 Stateline Scanner, won't post medical calls, but she will post heroin overdoses “because we all think it's a terrible epidemic, and we want to bring awareness to the problem.”

“Our biggest thing we stress to our admins is, don't post anything that puts anybody in jeopardy,” Conard said.

Public service

Kenney will re-post social media alerts from police, and he said he has no problem posting names and addresses of people wanted by police.

He'll also post announcements of benefit events related to police and fire agencies or the needy, or for businesses, such as grand openings. And he'll allow others to post their requests for help.

He has received thanks from people who avoided hazards and even from people who got their car back after he posted details of a car theft.

Once, when police were approaching a house where a man was holed up with a gun, people monitoring Kenney's tweets told him they were able to get their children inside and out of danger.

Kenney won't say exactly what police are doing during such incidents so that the bad guys are kept in the dark, but he will let people know what's going on so they know why police with guns drawn are suddenly in the neighborhood.

Kenney said Janesville police have asked him not to say anything when certain operations are going on, such as raiding a drug house, and he honors that request.

Dark past

Kenney has been criticized by some who think a person with a criminal record should not be doing what he is doing.

Kenney was convicted of a number of misdemeanors between 2005 and 2010, including criminal damage to property, disorderly conduct and battery. His court record also reflects difficulties in his personal relationships, he agrees.

A misdemeanor count of sex with a child over age 16 in 2008 arose out of his relationship with a woman who was 17 when he met her, he said.

The woman's family had welcomed him, but a relative from out of state objected to the relationship and raised the issue with police, he said.

Someone took out a temporary restraining order against him this year, but that person later dropped the request, and it was dismissed. Kenney said the person is the woman he lives with, and the matter has been resolved.

Kenney said he has taken anger-management classes, and he has put his past behind him.

“It's bad enough I have to live with those mistakes for rest of my life, that people can look me up and judge me,” he said. “That doesn't mean that's who I still am.”

Whatever people think of Kenney as a person, his hobby clearly is having an impact.

Kenney's Facebook statistics show 14,000 followers in Janesville alone. Sixty-five percent of his followers are women. He registers up to 70,000 Facebook interactions a day.

Virtual community

Facebook pages such as Rock County Scanner are one of a wide range of online places where people share ideas and information on topics that interest them.

The pages often become virtual communities, where people reach out, offering advice, solutions and support.

For example, this was posted recently on Rock County Scanner's Facebook page:

“Hi, I was wondering if you could help me post something regarding the vehicle rollover last night WB I-90. There was a couch in the road or something alike. My mother … was the driver who lost control of her car trying to avoid. As of this morning she had life threatening injuries, as well as several fractures. I'm trying to get information of who may have witnessed anything, plate number, etc. …”

People responded with advice and prayers.

Less uplifting was the shooting death of a Beloit man Nov. 23. People on the Rock County Scanner Facebook page began speculating on what had happened, discussing the recent rash of shootings in Beloit and criticizing each other for their comments.

One person even posted the name of the person whom police identified hours later as the victim.

“Please do not post any names of the possible victim until we have received info that all family has been notified,” Kenney posted.

Kenney and the other scanner posters are heading into their busy season.

“Winter is insane,” Kenney said, but he knows it's a time he can make a difference.

“I feel like I'm helping people,” he said.


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