By Dan O'Brien
The Boston Herald
MEDFORD, Mass. — If it's going out on a police or fire radio scanner, Michael Moura hears it — even when he's sleeping. The 27-year-old has four scanners turned on at nearly all times in his car, work truck or bedroom, in the basement of his parents' Medford home.
Moura is a 'sparkie' — someone whose hobby is listening to scanners, then driving to scenes of major incidents in hopes of catching a glimpse of what cops and firefighters endure every day.
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'I hear more from him than I do from the news,' said Moura's 54-year-old mother, Mary, who added that his fascination began when he was about 6 years old — wearing a plastic police hat and whistle and directing traffic in front of the family house.
'He'd stand there blowing it, waving at cars. The neighbors would all smile,' she said.
These days, Moura drives a 1997 Chrysler Concorde - the trunk packed with road flares, reflective safety vests and a camera — to get to active crime scenes and structure fires all over Massachusetts, tweeting what he sees to his 1,500 Twitter followers and taking photos that are occasionally submitted to — and used by — news organizations.
'I basically just enjoy doing it,' said Moura, a FedEx driver. 'Part of it is the excitement, the other half is the photography.'
Moura's father, David Moura, 56, said his son has been followed in his car by people he's interrupted committing a crime.
Sparkies have been around for decades. Philanthropist David Mugar was well known for driving around the city at night with the late Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, who was so fascinated with firefighting that he bought his own fire engine and became an honorary member of 300 fire departments.
But the presence of sparkies on Twitter — where breaking news is reported instantly — is increasing as fast as the social media site itself.
'People have something in their blood. They like to watch fires or see accidents,' said Mark O'Neill, 58, of Dorchester, a longtime sparkie who operates a radio frequency. 'Some people do bring their kids with them. Even off-duty firemen go out sparking and they bring their kids.'
Steve, who asked to withhold his last name, works in law enforcement and operates the 'Alert New England' Twitter account, which has more than 8,800 followers.
'I fill a niche,' Steve said. 'People can get information that has a decent chance of being accurate right now, as opposed to waiting for the news media, which is forced to take the time to verify the facts. The trade-off is sometimes my information is wrong.'
Most sparkies warn followers they are unofficial sources of information.
'The biggest impact of keeping people informed is just a 'feel good' factor,' Steve said. 'People seem to be comforted by knowing what's going on.'
O'Neill, who owns nine scanners and has rushed to fire scenes for 40 years, says it's inevitable for sparkies to run into real danger while pursuing their passion.
'I've helped people out of (burning) buildings. I've seen people get shot in front of me,' he said. 'We're out on the street, so we hear the calls before the firemen get there sometimes.'
Copyright 2012 The Boston Herald