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Riverview retiree turns ear to police scanners, spreads word to 1,400 Facebook followers

RIVERVIEW — No matter the day, no matter the hour, Bill Ewans listens, his ears tuned to dangers that lurk in the air.

He tracks criminals' every turn as they race to flee the law. He warns his faithful followers of wrong-way drivers, traffic jams, burglaries and potential neighborhood "punks."

And he does it all from a lumpy brown recliner, armed with two police scanners and Facebook.

Ewans, 66, scans Hillsborough County's emergency response channels each day to report breaking news that might otherwise be overlooked by his Riverview neighbors.

"Plant City. Chasing White Impala. Now reporting suspect down," he wrote during a January call that later proved to be a police-involved shooting. "Lumsden & Lithia. Intersection shut down. Motorcycle down," he posted on a recent week night.

The retired computer technician has been at it for five months, communicating through a Facebook page he calls "South Hillsborough Co. Police/EMS Scanner Activity Awareness."

Already, the page has more than 1.400 followers.

Ewans is hardly the only self-professed "scanner nerd" in the Tampa Bay area. Ever since law enforcement agencies began communicating by radio in the late 1970s, hobbyists have eavesdropped. But Ewans goes a step farther, turning scanner chatter into something his neighbors can use. Along the way, he found a new purpose for his retirement.

"I've met a lot of nice people online and get a lot of 'Thanks, Bill. Thanks, Bill' for the things I post," Ewans said. "Even if it's just someone saying, 'Gee, thanks Bill, I really didn't want to get stuck in that traffic,' it feels good."

Most of his work is done from inside his surveillance fortress — a bright blue home in suburban Riverview that he shares with his wife and three young grandchildren. Even from the curb, it's apparent someone inside is watching.

Security cameras above his garage door and entryway send a live feed to a large monitor mounted above his television. The screen is divided into four separate views, showing Ewans' front yard but also those of homes up and down his street. His welcome mat reads "No soliciting," and multiple signs warn potential intruders that he's a gun owner who knows his rights.

Ewans spends hours in his recliner watching the neighborhood while updating Facebook with dispatches from Uniden scanners he programmed himself. Dispatch codes he has yet to commit to memory are quickly explained by the online Radio Reference scanner guides, which are bookmarked in his phone along with the Hillsborough County jail log.

If he peers through the thick lenses of his wire frames he can work off his small phone screen and avoid moving to the computer in his dining room.

His wife, Hope Ewans, and his grandkids rib him about the time he spends on his project.

"It's all he does," said grandson Avery Ewans, 11, on a recent morning.

But Ewans only smiles. He recalls moments when his scanner monitoring helped officers solve crimes and helped strangers feel safer.

One night last March, before all this began, he heard reports of a wrong-way driver coming up U.S. 301 from Sun City Center. Something led him to post updates on the driver's location and the police pursuit to a now-defunct Facebook group page for people living in the Riverview area. The response he received from strangers was overwhelming, he said.

"One woman's daughter was on the road right where this guy was and she contacted me like five times, personally, to thank me for updating the group so she could call her daughter and get her off the road before it was too late," Ewans said. "She just kept saying I could have saved her daughter's life, and that's a nice thing to hear."

Saving lives has been a life-long ambition.

Poor vision in his right eye dashed dreams of a career in law enforcement and joining the Navy. But Ewans found a niche repairing CT scanners and MRI machines and took solace in his contribution to medicine, knowing how important the equipment is to critically ill patients.

"Their lives are in your hands," he said.

When work was slow he began monitoring police scanners, a hobby from his childhood days in Newark.

He delights in recalling how he helped identify a man wanted for a string of gas station robberies in New Jersey. The man was his son's absent school bus driver. And just this week, footage on his home cameras of an attempted break in at a neighbor's house was used in court.

He says little about the other ways he uses his scanner to help his community, like when he quietly sent a Domino's Pizza delivery driver $20 to cover the $15 that was stolen from him in a Riverview mugging.

"I just wanted him not to think that everybody in the world is bad, that there is somebody who cares," Ewans said.

Since launching his Facebook page, Ewans has noticed that the airwaves seem most active from about 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. He marvels at the drunken drivers who get pulled over before dawn on on Mondays. Posts about helicopter activity attract the most attention from followers, but he's judicious when sharing sensitive information. He won't post addresses, names, medical calls, or details involving any undercover or surveillance investigations. "The last thing police need are a bunch of rubberneckers at a crime scene," he said.

He doesn't hear everything.

For the past decade or so, most law enforcement agencies have used encrypted digital frequencies to transmit information they don't want heard on a scanner, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon said.

Still, Ewans has no plans to retire his scanner page anytime soon. The online community he created depends on him.

He keeps tuning in, night after night, because there's one response he can't ignore.

"Thanks, Bill."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

Riverview retiree turns ear to police scanners, spreads word to 1,400 Facebook followers 02/15/17 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2017 7:36pm]
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