Just say no to scanner reporting

Firefighters used foam at the scene of an "accident" behind the town's highway barn Oct. 10. The drill was broadcast on the public scanner channels. — Gabrielle Mannino

When you’ve been in a newsroom long enough, you know when it’s time to pay attention to the scanner and when it’s OK to ignore the background noise.

Last Wednesday, as I was wrapping up the print edition of The Times, the scanner blared with beeps and tones that say, “Pay attention, this could be something.” And so I did.

Moments later, a woman dispatcher, breathless and sounding slightly panicked, issued the first report. It sounded serious. A two-vehicle crash in Oak Bluffs on County Road at the highway barn.

I jotted down the address and continued to listen. If I was going to send out a reporter and photographer who had just finished a long shift after a long week, I wanted to make sure it was something worth sending them to — and I also had to decide if I’d be ripping apart a page to get the news in print.

“There is a need for extrication equipment,” the dispatcher said, alerting first responders.

OK, I thought, this is very serious. Someone is trapped in one of the vehicles.

There is a temptation in today’s world of Twitter and Facebook to get the news of a bad crash up online quickly. I resisted, but I did peek at Twitter and the Islanders Talk Facebook page to see if anyone else had details. Someone on Islanders Talk posted about hearing the scanner reports, that it sounded serious, and people should slow down on County Road. Clearly, that person was just hearing the same things I was, and hadn’t witnessed it firsthand.

I had already called reporter Rich Saltzberg and photo editor Gabrielle Mannino and sent them to the scene when I heard the dispatcher calling for more ambulances and talking about two priority 1 injuries (the most serious, obviously), as well as the need for a MedFlight helicopter. I alerted Rich and Gabrielle to this development as they made their way to the scene.

I also chatted with our proofreader Barbara Davis and designer Chris Silva to alert them that I might make changes before we hit “send” on the print edition.

In the meantime, I texted my wife. As a commuter to the Island, my life revolves around ferry schedules. I typically take the 7:15 boat out of Vineyard Haven on deadline nights, and I didn’t want her driving to Woods Hole to pick me up because I’d be staying late to get the news into the print edition.

My first call from Rich was a puzzle. “We’ve driven past the address you gave us twice, and we don’t see anything,” he said. “Are you sure it wasn’t West Tisbury?”

I was sure, but I looked at my scribbled notes again. “O.B.” “Highway barn.” “County Road.”

I told them to make another careful pass, as I was still hearing scanner chatter.

This time, Rich and Gabrielle reported later, they pulled into the highway barn parking lot. Out behind the building, they found first responders working the scene of a two-car crash — as part of a training drill.

Still unsure what was happening, Gabrielle snapped away, taking photographs of the scene.

Chief John Rose was surprised to see the reporter and photographer. He wondered if they had heard about the drill somehow. He was equally surprised to learn that the entire drill had been broadcast over public scanner channels. The intent was to use private emergency channels for the drill, he told Rich.

Just as the text came in from Rich alerting me that it was all a drill, I heard the 7:15 ferry whistle blare out the window. There would be no story. There would be no reworking pages. And I really could have jumped on that ferry home, had I known five minutes earlier. (I can neither confirm nor deny whether there was any swearing from my lips as a result.)

In the end, upon reflection over a late ferry beer, I was OK with it all.

It was a good test for the fire department and other first responders, and a better test for us as a newspaper to have the kind of resolve it takes to be accurate instead of first.

That’s a good day.