Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Encrypted police radios can cut newsrooms out of the loop, but some are working around it

Shelby County, Illinois, Sheriff Mike Miller with
his encrypted radios (Shelby County News photo)
By Tim Mandell
The Rural Blog

A staple of work at a community newspaper is the police scanner. Typically, one is set up in the middle of the newsroom where the entire editorial staff can keep tabs on what's happening. Many photographers have one with them at all times, ensuring that even when the newspaper is closed and reporters are unavailable, the paper can at the very least get a photograph.

But those days of rushing out of the office or being awakened in the middle of the night to cover a murder, a fire or any other breaking news event could be coming to an end in many places. More and more police departments are using encrypted scanners, leaving journalists in the dark about emergency events, and raising safety concerns.

Some newspapers have found ways to continue to get emergency updates—although it's not always successful—and can cost a hefty sum. Some police agencies have offered to lease radios to news outlets.

This week in Indiana, "as part of the $17 million upgrade, most of the channels used by Fort Wayne police and fire departments, the Allen County Police Department and New Haven Police Department will become encrypted," Rebecca Green reports for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. "The reason for the move to encrypted channels, according to Fort Wayne Public Safety Director Rusty York, is that the current 800-megahertz channels are readily available to 'bad guys' who monitored the radio traffic." York said the new system is impossible to monitor.

Last week, Columbia, Tenn., police switched to encrypted radio, and "Those who listen to emergency radio scanners might have noticed only static emanating from the Columbia police channel," Chris Moorman reports for The Daily Herald. "Chief Tim Potts said the encryption key the department is using is unbreakable." He told Moorman, There’s not a scanner on the market that would pick up what we were transmitting."

Some agencies are using other means to ensure that newspapers can keep up to date on emergencies. Mike Buffington, of Mainstreet Newspapers in Jefferson, Ga., said he listens to the scanner through a website called Radio Reference. "The 5-0 Radio iPhone app uses the same feeds, so I can listen to my feed from anywhere, regardless of whether I'm in radio range," Buffington said. In addition they "discovered that most E911 systems also dispatch data via text messages on major calls." They asked to be included, and now all the group's editors get texts when there's an emergency. 

Buffington wrote on the members-only Hotline of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. David Pugh of the Archbold Buckeye in northwestern Ohio wrote that his local police switched to digital P-25, a system that some scanners are capable of receiving. But it's not cheap, said Pugh—each scanner costs the paper $525.

Still, if a department goes for encrypted radios, some newspapers, as well as neighboring emergency responders, will be left out in the cold. "The problem that has arisen, at least locally, is that only the North Little Rock police and fire have gone to the encrypted," Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Tom Larimer told The Rural Blog. "That just means that their big brothers across the river can't hear them in the event they need assistance. Encrypted radios would seem practical only if all police, fire and other emergency units adopt them at once, and apparently some don't see the benefit of going encrypted at all."

That issue cost a man his life on Feb. 7, 2013, when a Riverside, Calif., officer was gunned down at a stop light, and his partner was injured by a suspect being sought by visiting Los Angeles police, John Asbury reports for The Press-Enterprise. The two departments were on different systems, and L.A. officials were unable to warn local police in time that a dangerous suspect was in the area. Eleven months and $172 million later, Riverside has an encrypted system that will cost $16 million a year to run, but it's on the same wavelength as neighboring agencies, Brian Rokos reports for The Press-Enterprise. Most communities lack that kind of money, leaving some areas hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.


Carl said...

Ive been watching the live scanner feeds from the USA go down at an alarming recently just showing how many are choosing the encryption route.

I didn't know newsrooms were getting the chance to lease a trunking radio from the police, it would be very interesting to know what this "service" is costing the media

Thanks for a great post.

Unknown said...

Here in Jacksonville FL the police department took back the leased trunking scanners and left tge media in the dark... this all smells too shady to me. We are losing our rights at an alarming rate.