When the call came in Wednesday about a motor vehicle accident at Fourth Plain Boulevard and Stapleton Road, Caran Johnson jumped to action. Likewise, when a high-rise fire broke out the same day, Jason Williard was on it — in 140 characters or less.
Both Vancouver residents are part of a new twist on the typical police and fire scanner junkies — they use Twitter to relay what they’re hearing.
A quick scan of the social network shows countless feeds devoted to reporting the goings-on overheard on scanners worldwide. Johnson (who tweets as ScanCouver) and Williard (who tweets as VanWa Scanner) keep a handle on what’s up in Clark County.
Neither listens to their scanners nonstop, or tweets at all hours. But they both like to know what’s going on, and now feel a certain obligation to keep their growing numbers of followers abreast of emergency situations.
The draw, they both said, is having information available immediately.
“I just have some kind of fascination of listening in to the secret world of the scanner that not everyone gets to hear,” said Johnson, 40, a Salmon Creek mother of two and an employee of T-Mobile, a wireless phone provider. She has been listening to scanners since college.
“With major incidents, the house fires, the major commercial fires … when there’s a major response, I like to know what’s going on and then communicate it out,” said Williard, 28, who lives downtown and works at cable TV company Charter Communications in east Vancouver.
Police radio traffic is carried on public airwaves that are easy to monitor. News organizations such as The Columbian also use Twitter and other social media tools to spread the word about crime, fires and other urgent situations.
But spreading the word isn’t done with the full approval of local public safety officials.
Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said there’s a chance what’s coming across the airwaves isn’t verified.
“I would always (use caution) about putting out information in literally the infancy stages of any incident, because we don’t necessarily know all those facts — or some of them, or any of them — are true,” Kapp said.
She said there is also a chance that a tweet could tip off a criminal about police activity.
But Johnson and Williard both said they hold off on tweeting information they hear that may be sensitive. Other scanner feeds, such as one following the Washington County, Ore., emergency radio traffic (Wash Co Scanner) note that the information isn’t confirmed.
“I try and kind of listen to it for a little bit, not just blurt out what I hear,” Williard said. “If it seems like it’s something that I really shouldn’t tweet, I try and hold back.”
Yet he added he’s had the greatest influx of followers during big incidents, when some news organizations retweet his updates.
“It becomes me contributing to the news just by listening,” Williard said.
Kapp, who does not follow either person’s Twitter account, conceded that’s an obvious draw of the hobby.
“I’m sure it’s very interesting to people not in the industry to listen to that, and obviously social media has brought a new element to listening to the scanner,” she said.
Each has been tweeting scanner information seriously for less than a year. Johnson has 280 followers, while Williard has 120. Each also retweets posts from other scanner feeds and related news stories.
Williard bought a scanner as a Christmas gift to himself; Johnson listens in on an application downloaded to her tablet computer.
The hobby isn’t exactly an entirely cheery one — after all, it’s people calling for help in emergency situations.
Williard finds himself drawn to those big stories, including the two recent suicide deaths by people jumping from the Interstate 205 bridge.
Johnson was among those glued to her scanner during December’s tragic murder-suicide and house fire in Washougal.
But as a naturally upbeat person, she tries to focus on the banter between police officers, who often seem so hard-shelled in public, and quirky news (think man vs. owl collision).
“It gets kind of depressing, especially when there are children involved,” she said. “I try and maintain a positive attitude.”