Earlier this week when area police rushed to find the man who wounded two Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies, thousands of people – here and across the region – tracked the drama by listening to the Spokane County Emergency Medical Services radio scanner.
Some used actual scanners. But a large number – at one time more than 2,000 – tuned in through computers or smartphones.
Tuesday’s harrowing officers-down story reached those PCs and phones only because a 29-year-old Spokane man is a scanner fanatic who voluntarily provides a 24/7 link between the emergency radio channel and the Internet.
“I don’t do it for money,” Mike Russell said, sitting at his computer in his Hillyard home. “This is a hobby for me, but I have family who have been firefighters and law enforcement.
“I’ve always listened to scanners,” he said.
Russell is one of thousands of residents across North America who keep a live scanner plugged into their computer. They’re sending the channel into RadioReference.com, an online business that gathers and distributes live streams of law enforcement, utility and even railway scanner traffic from thousands of communities in North America.
Once in awhile, when someone like Russell gets a huge spike in listeners, RadioReference sends a monetary reward.
This past week was the first time that happened for Russell. Prior to that, his highest count was 160 listeners, during a Hillyard apartment fire.
Russell runs a home business, providing a Web hosting service and PC consulting.
Around 5 p.m. Tuesday, his phone began buzzing, waking him from a nap.
“My phone exploded. My friends began calling me, saying I needed to tune in,” Russell said.
By 6 p.m. the RadioReference site reported about 1,500 people were tuned in to the Spokane EMS feed. Roughly two-thirds of those were using smartphone apps that dial into RadioReference. The other one-third were getting the feed on their computers.
By 7:30 p.m. the number hit the evening’s high mark, 2,057 listeners, Russell said.
He learned later he’ll receive a $75 gift certificate for having more than 2,000 listeners for at least three minutes.
“I never thought this would happen, having that many listeners,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get back to that peak unless something like this happens again.”
Until last fall, Russell was your basic scanner geek, listening to area channels and sending emails and texts through another online service, Incident Page Network.
In late summer, he started experiencing gaps in service, where the Spokane EMS channel feed went down or stayed inactive intermittently. He contacted RadioReference, a San Antonio-based online business. They gave him the green light to take over.
He bought a $75 scanner on eBay and plugged the audio line from it into the input of his computer.
It has stayed on ever since, Russell said.
He can’t tell where the listeners are, though some contact him by email to let him know their location.
One of those who tuned in, via PC, was 54-year-old Sarah Light, a retired resident of tiny McCleary, a town of about 1,600 between Olympia and the coast.
Light tracks traffic on Twitter that relates to public safety and law enforcement. She spotted frequent tweets Tuesday afternoon about the officer-down scenario in north Spokane. She quickly logged into her RadioReference account and followed what was happening.
Light said she used this week’s incident as self-training in emergency preparedness.
“People need to know how to get information and how to find out what’s happening, or what’s not happening,” Light said.
She was relieved when the scanner traffic reported good news – the deputies taken to a hospital for treatment, and the gunman dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.
She’s also glad someone like Russell provides that connection across the region. “Something like that can make a huge difference. Someone could have been the one who knew something and called in a key tip to help save a life.”