I have many tasks as Assignment Editor; vetting and approving reporters’ story ideas, dispatching photographers to cover breaking news, ensuring we are properly staffed for major events, taking phone calls from the public about anything and everything you can imagine, and assigning equipment and personnel to our various live reports around the city every evening. But no matter what I do, something that’s always in the background - literally - is the police scanner. It’s actually for more than just the Calgary Police Service (CPS) channels; we pick up chatter from the Calgary Fire Department, various RCMP detachments around the city, Alberta Health Services’ paramedics and sometimes medical personnel on board the STARS helicopter, flying a patient to a hospital rooftop.
The channels are digitally encrypted, meaning they could easily be kept secret. But respecting our role in keeping the public informed, the emergency bosses allow us to purchase code-breaking scanners which enable us to listen in. News coverage of police arresting criminals, firefighters dousing flames and paramedics treating the sick and injured also shows the public how their tax dollars are spent, so that’s likely another reason why we have been allowed to eavesdrop. There is, however, one big condition to our scanner access; that we don’t broadcast any information that hasn’t been confirmed by an official.
Here is what I hear.
- A majority of calls involve someone who is drunk or high, or both. Someone who has fallen through a window, is fighting with a family member, or refusing to leave a business is most likely also 10-12 (drunk), or on 10-38s (drugs), or both.
- There are lots of suicides and attempted suicides. And, more commonly, threats of suicide. Yes, those calls are more frequent following Christmas, and yes, the numbers seem to have increased since the economy tanked.
Some calls are flat-out funny…
“Check on a report of a naked man in the alley.”
“Do you have a description?”
“Uhh. He’s naked!”
- Some people have a very broad definition of what constitutes an emergency. I have heard many calls involving parents complaining of disobedient kids.
- An occasional yell breaks through. Some people don’t like being arrested, and occasionally shouts of get the #^*$@ off me fill the newsroom. (Hopefully not when the brownie troop is visiting.)
- That angry “nosey neighbour” on your street, who complains about the tent trailer in your driveway, the tree overhanging your fence and where people park their cars, probably called the cops.
- It is possible to flirt over the air.
- When a young child has been critically injured, or is in severe medical distress, every other call becomes secondary. Periodically police are heard blocking intersections and escorting ambulances to Alberta Children’s Hospital.
- Not every incident that attracts numerous fire trucks, ambulances and police cars is a major incident. Lots of units attend calls, especially when it’s slow. We actually live in a pretty safe city.
I am frequently awed by how the dispatchers are able to keep their cool in extremely high pressure situations. Over the years I hear the same voices - the skeptical droll-voiced dispatcher who seems to doubt every complaint, but sends officers anyway, or the photo radar officer who declares his location in a wonderful Parisian accent. Speaking of accents, there are a lot of British cops. Sometimes I imagine them all out together after their shifts having drinks and talking about their days.
As you might expect, the types of calls change with the seasons. In the winter I keep my ears peeled for multi-vehicle pileups on icy roads. In the late winter and spring it’s people walking on unstable Bow River ice. Summer thunderstorms produce lightning, so reports of smoke on roof tops warrant attention. Stampede shenanigans lead to a whole other type of call. One of my favourites involved a drunken man on a horse harassing people. In the autumn, grass fires flare up so any call involving a “bush-buggy” could be big.
I have been in the news business for 28 years, and can’t begin to estimate how many hours I have spent in the company of a squawking scanner. The types of calls have changed over that time. There were no smartphones to ping in 1988, no threatening posts on Facebook and no text messages to investigate. Most often I’m not even aware I am listening, until something catches my ear. Shots fired, working fire, and life-threatening injuries always get my attention. The big one is 10-32 - a sudden death. I know a lot of the codes. Some of the veteran photographers know them all. Our evening anchor and producer Camilla Di Giuseppe can recite them from memory. My partner on the desk, Bob Sumner, is also a code encyclopedia.
I try not to take home with me the drama and heartache I hear and sometimes it’s difficult not knowing the outcome of some calls. An emotional detachment is necessary to avoid becoming a quivering mess. But everyone in the newsroom is aware that behind every scanner call is a family that will never be the same - because of a death or injury to a loved one, someone going to jail, or a home (and precious memories within) burned down. I have, however, caught myself spelling my name Romeo, echo, golf. Roger that? Assignment desk out…