What’s the deal with smart phone scanner apps?

One of my 2019 New Year’s resolutions is to write two Forward Observer Dispatch blogs posts per week. You can help me out greatly by sending in your questions about intelligence, security, and defense for emergency preparedness or other SHTF/disaster scenarios.

Today’s question comes from reader John M., who asks:

“Are you familiar with iPhone police radio apps such as 5-0 Radio? How would you rate it compared to the Uniden Home Patrol 2?”

I’m familiar with a few of those apps, but I don’t use them for a few reasons. There are two scenarios where I do see how a police scanner app could come in handy, though.


First, the potential problems:

Those police scanner apps may work in a pinch if that’s the only available option you have, but it’s a risky proposition.

Many (most or all) scanner apps require an individual to set up an audio feed from their own scanner. What you’re listening to is the audio which is being uploaded through their computer to the scanner app’s servers. If that individual’s internet or power goes down, then you will lose the scanner feed. (And that’s if these scanner apps even have coverage for your area.)

Similarly, if your own cell network, battery, or internet goes down, your feed goes down, too. There are lots of potential points of failure here.

By using one of those apps, you are wholly dependent on someone else’s infrastructure, and that’s a position I’d rather not be in during an emergency when I need this information the most.

Furthermore, some of those scanners are set on time delays of up to 15 minutes, at the request of local law enforcement. Staying informed or making decisions on what’s happening 15 minutes ago is a security risk, especially if you’re unaware of a time delay.

I understand those apps are popular and I get several questions about them every year, but those are a few of my concerns.


Better solutions:

As for the second question, I do recommend the Uniden Home Patrol 2 for several reasons. (You can read my product review here.)

For one, it can pick up both digital and analog transmissions without dependence on the internet. And it runs on batteries or on any other auxiliary power source (like a solar cell).

There is no time delay, there are lots of other channels you can listen to aside from police, fire, and EMS, and you can refine the scanner settings to give priority to certain channels (or to ignore certain channels). With the scanner apps, you’re getting whatever settings the main feed has. With a police scanner like the Home Patrol 2, you can include forest service, military, airport, transportation and a multitude of other unencrypted channels.

One of my favorite features that you won’t find on 5-0 Radio is that the Uniden Home Patrol 2 can use a GPS antenna ($80). With the GPS antenna, the Home Patrol 2 will automatically load new frequencies as you travel, providing you with local and real-time coverage where ever you are in the U.S. and Canada.


5-0 Radio scenarios:

There are two scenarios where police scanner apps could come in handy.

The first is for general or recreational use. One of the best uses of a scanner in general is to develop a baseline of activity (so you can later identify unusual activity), and a scanner app may be a lot more convenient than your actual scanner.

The second is for bugging out to an area where your police scanner doesn’t reach. If you’re preparing to bug out or are forced to leave your current area, one of the largest risks you’re taking is traveling to another area where conditions are unknown. That’s where 5-0 Radio could be used scan a future location and maybe get a sense of what’s happening there (the usual caveats still apply, especially with regard to area availability). Meanwhile, running your Home Patrol 2 with the GPS antenna will allow you to listen in on local conditions.


Bottom Line:

If your family’s safety and situational awareness has no price tag, then I would much rather spend the money on a Uniden Home Patrol 2 for all its benefits than depend on a police scanner app on my smart phone, which carries numerous vulnerabilities. While there are some potential uses for scanner apps, those don’t outweigh the benefits of purchasing a real scanner.


Thanks for writing in, John. I hope that answers your questions.


Always Out Front,
Samuel Culper


P.S. Sign up below if you’d like to receive the Forward Observer Dispatch by email. No spam. No fluff. Only my latest thoughts on intelligence, security, and defense for an uncertain future.



Samuel Culper is a former military intelligence NCO and contract Intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. I find them handy for gauging response to situations. I know my police department is different from other departments but procedures are similar.
    I listened during the San Bernardino attack as well as to the Baltimore and Ferguson riots. I learned a lot about what to do if someone was to happen in my area. It was interesting to see the wife’s expression when she heard cops during the riots telling their people to pull back. She realized then that in a situation we are on our own.

    1. Yes! I listen during riots, mass shootings, natural disasters, or if I hear a lot of sirens converging locally. I too have heard some odd instructions to police during situations. Makes you think. I do believe we are on our own during civil unrest. There are only so many police per citizen after all.

  2. I started listening to a scanner app when I was doing research for a novel. It really placed me on the police side of the thin blue line when I realized how much mayhem goes unreported in the news.

    I use Scanner Radio Pro. I live in Austin. Do you know if it’s on a 15 min delay? Once I listened to them searching my area by helicopter and on foot for a fugitive. Seemed in real time.

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