Flint, MI– In Flint, there is a woman who watches over all of the city from the palm of her hand.
On a cool September afternoon, Vicky Yrlas, 66, sat in her backyard with her purple cane, a 24-oz Faygo Cola, a pack of Newports, a flashlight, and most importantly, her pink cell phone.
“A 67-year-old man fell 12 feet from a pole,” came a crackly voice from her phone. It was barely audible to an untrained ear, and the sound of her five dogs, Zebo, Blue, Pearl, Boojy, and Harley, barking from inside her house didn’t help. But Yrlas has a knack for this.
She gasped, and whispered, “Oh, my God,” clicking out of her Flint scanner radio app and into Facebook.
“1000 blk Mt Morris M 67 fell 12 ft from pole barn Alert and conscious,” she typed out with one finger, and clicked “post,” seconds after hearing the dispatch.
The post was shared to the Flint Michigan Scanners Facebook page, which is followed by 64,372 people. That’s more than 75% of Flint’s current population. Her grandchildren joke that Yrlas is famous, but only a handful of her followers know who she is.
Yrlas started the page six years ago, and it quickly became a go-to source for Flint residents to find information about shootings, car accidents, and anything else that comes over the scanner.
She’s kept herself mostly anonymous—only her family, friends, and neighbors know what she does. When followers message the page with tips, or asking for information about an incident, she tells them she’s not the police. Just a volunteer.
‘I was addicted to it’
Running a police scanners page isn’t an endeavor that’s entirely out of the blue for Yrlas.
In the 1970s, she worked security for Pinkerton and briefly considered trying to become a police or corrections officer. It was only the physical challenges of these jobs that kept her from going for it.
“I heard that you had to climb up bleachers so many times or what not, you know, and I didn’t think I could do that,” Yrlas said.
Her career path changed a few times over the years. For a while she owned a cleaning company. She also spent some time working the cash register at a party store. Her last job before retiring was at AT&T in customer service.
Between her retirement and having Multiple Sclerosis and other health issues that make it difficult for her to walk, Yrlas found herself cooped up at home most of the time. She was bored.
That’s when she found the police scanner—devices or apps that allow people to listen in on radio frequencies used by police to find out what’s happening in real time.
Yrlas started volunteering for the Genesee County Scanner Facebook page in 2012. She listened to the scanner, posted what she heard, and felt like she was doing something productive for her community.
She volunteered for the page until she physically couldn’t anymore. After a year, Yrlas underwent surgery and was unable to work while she was recovering. But there was a problem.
“I was addicted to it,” she said.
In 2015, she started her own version of the scanners page, specifically for Flint. She’s been listening to the scanners practically non-stop since then.
She listens in her backyard. She listens in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. It’s the first thing she hears when she wakes up, because she doesn’t turn it off when she goes to sleep. Sometimes she dreams about whatever comes over the scanners. If she hears about a shooting in the middle of the night, she pulls herself awake to post about it.
For about three months Yrlas had issues with her internet connection and didn’t know what to do with herself. Lately her problem is telemarketers. Their scam calls are annoying, of course, because they interrupt her scanner.
“I already slept with five of the officers on the force, what more do you want me to donate?” Yrlas lied to someone calling from California to ask for donations to their police force. That stopped them from calling again.
The only time she has the scanner off on purpose is when she’s crafting, her grandchildren are visiting, or she’s calling to check in on her husband, a truck driver who’s out on the road for months at a time.
When Yrlas first started listening to the scanners, her husband laughed about it. But now he looks to his wife for all the latest information about crime in the city while he’s out of town.
“He’ll call me up and say, ‘My mom just said this. Do you know what’s going on?’ So, it’s pretty hilarious,” Yrlas said.
For the first four years of the page’s existence, Yrlas was on her own, but that’s not the case anymore. A couple years ago she put out a post looking for volunteers. Now she estimates there are about 15 posters, although some volunteer more time than others.
For Michael Penzer, the scanners have become somewhat of an addiction too.
Something different every day
Penzer, 48, started volunteering for the page last year. Coincidentally, it was the same weekend he adopted his 90-pound cur pit bull, Lobo (short for lobotomy), who can detect his seizures.
Penzer has epilepsy and underwent brain surgery in 1997. His seizures have recently come back, but for the first twelve years after the surgery, he stopped having them and also found a new sense of adventure. Something about the removal of his hippocampus made Penzer want to live life on the edge.
In the last 24 years, he’s gone skydiving 29 times. He also started working in 911 dispatch for the city of Flint, and is currently in training to do dispatch for the Michigan State Police. When he’s not working dispatch, he’s listening to other dispatchers over the scanners and posting to the Flint Michigan Scanners Facebook page.
“You know you just never know your day-to-day, and that’s why I like this type of thing,” Penzer said. “I don’t like repetitive jobs. They bore me.”
One Friday morning, Penzer and Lobo curled up on the big, round couch in the living room to listen to the scanner. His desk is positioned against the couch, his mouse resting on a pillow. It’s a comfortable setup, and it’s got to be, seeing as Penzer typically volunteers 10 to 14 hours a day.
The dispatcher’s voice projected through the speakers on his desk announcing that a man had accidentally set his mattress on fire. Penzer scratched his head and thought, “What the heck is that all about?” Then more details came through that the man had been smoking in bed and using an oxygen tank. Penzer shook his head, slid out his keyboard, and posted about the incident from his computer. Something different every day.
Next to his keyboard is a snifter three-quarters of the way full of an amber-colored beverage.
“Sorry, I’m a drinker,” Penzer said, lifting the glass to his mouth. “This is Dragon’s Mead. 11%.”
Penzer’s entire house is decorated in dragon figurines, paintings, posters, and curtains. There are dragon sheets on his waterbed. He’s got a dragon tattoo on his left arm. No beer could be more fitting for him, although that’s not why he drinks it. It’s for his nerves.
“I’ve got a kegerator at home, so it helps me to get through with life, you know,” Penzer said. “Because without the beer, yeah, I don’t know if I can do that, you know.”
It’s not always rainbows and sunshine and people setting their mattresses on fire. Sometimes he hears things that really shake him up.
Even though Penzer doesn’t have children of his own, he has “a heart for them,” and hates to hear calls about young people and abuse. He’s even heard calls where the victims are people he knows who have gotten in car accidents, or overdosed on drugs. Stuff like that will make him turn off the scanners for a while.
“I’m done for the night, my heart can only take so much, goodnight followers,” Penzer posted on Feb. 22.
The post received 665 likes, and 135 comments from followers wishing the anonymous poster a good night, sweet dreams, rest, and relaxation. Many said they’d keep the poster in their thoughts and prayers, and thanked him for the hard work. Some said they couldn’t imagine how anyone did this work.
The volunteers support each other, too.
Penzer’s become friends with a former poster on the page who quit when it became too much to handle. He still checks in on Penzer, and sometimes brings him ribs or whatever else he’s cooked up. Penzer gives him apple wood from his parents’ house in exchange. Yrlas made Penzer a coffee cup, but they have yet to actually meet in person.
Even though he says it takes a toll on his heart, Penzer said he really enjoys volunteering for the page because he knows it helps people and he feels appreciated. Helping people is what Penzer believes he’s meant to do.
“I try to look at the definition of my name, which is an archangel, so I try to look out for others,” Penzer said. “I just feel committed to do this you know. It’s not easy…I just feel like I need the community to know what’s going on in the city of Flint because I really care about it.”
‘It petrifies me, but I’m glad to know’
In 2019, the Genesee County 911 Communications Center began digitally encrypting all police radio channels meaning the dispatches could not be accessed by the public. Yrlas said that happened because a lot of people were going to chase police, and gawk at the crime scenes.
Now Yrlas and the other volunteers just listen to the Genesee County fire scanner and Flint fire scanner, which aren’t encrypted, and take in tips from their followers. Sometimes followers will message the page about a car accident they saw, or heavy police presence in an area, or gunshots they heard, and the posters will share their tips on the page with a note that it came from a viewer.
If something bad is happening somewhere, whether it’s a car accident blocking traffic or a shooting in a neighborhood, Yrlas wants people to know what’s going on so they can be careful. They can take another route, or keep their kids inside. Listening to the scanners has even kept her own family safe.
One time she heard over the scanner that police were chasing a man with a gun through her neighborhood. It was while her grandchildren were playing outside in her yard. She pulled them in as soon as she heard the dispatch, and moments later saw the man run right past her house.
“I probably saved their lives,” she said.
Yrlas has 17 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, who spend a lot of time at her house. She bought her home from the land bank 13 years ago. It’s got a big yard with plenty of space for the children to play in.
There’s also a playground right across the street from her home, but Yrlas doesn’t let her grandchildren venture out there anymore without an adult. People use that park to sell drugs, she said.
“They’re going to see that as they get older too much,” Yrlas said. “I got to try to shelter them and let them be kids.”
The world is a different place than it was when she was a kid, it seems. Yrlas grew up in Vassar, and said her family never locked their door. When she first moved to Flint in the ’70s, she didn’t either, but now she uses four locks. When she was a child, she and her siblings would ride their bikes to Port Huron, more than a hundred miles, and camp out overnight with no adults.
“I can’t even let the kids go to the park that’s a block away,” she said. “It’s sad. They’re being robbed.”
Yrlas admits that listening to the scanners has probably made her worry more about her grandchildren, but it’s not paranoia—it’s because now she hears about all the horrible things that really happen.
“Per a viewer
“Today a silver Silverado
“Tried picking up two little girls
“They ran up to a house and ask for help homeowner took them home
“This was on Pennsylvania.”
Yrlas posted that on Aug. 11 after getting a message from a follower about a possible sex trafficking situation.
“It petrifies me, but I’m glad to know,” she said.
She worries for her grandchildren. She worries for the victims she hears about over the scanners, and wonders how they’re doing, if they’re safe now, if their families are OK. She worries about the city as a whole.
“I would love to see all these senseless murders stop,” Yrlas said. “When I first came to Flint, there was so much opportunity it was unreal.”
It’s sad how the city has changed, she said, but through the Facebook page, she’s actually seen a lot of good, too.
People send messages and leave comments all the time expressing their support for victims, their hopes and prayers, and their concern for the safety of the community.
“There are so many amazing people that are in Flint that you hear about. They volunteered for this, or they’ve done this. That’s what makes my day, is to hear the positive,” she said. “And I really feel I’ve got some of the best followers of the page.”
In some ways, even hearing the negative things that comes over the scanners has helped Yrlas see her own life in a different way.
“I have a lot of health issues and sometimes, I’m a human, I might wake up and say why me? But I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. It makes me appreciate life more, because I might think I have it bad, but someone else is going through a whole lot worse,” she said. “I didn’t just fall 12 feet.”