firefighter on radio

Why are first responders turning away from radio encryption?

Encrypted radio transmissions are often used in police and fire departments to secure and protect communications, but some agencies are finding that the risks of encryption outweigh the rewards.

Radio encryption uses coded algorithms to modify voice signals so people listening on radio scanners can’t understand what’s being said. Some emergency response agencies are turning off their radio encryption because it can prevent messages from being received by nearby safety departments that have legacy equipment or no access to the required encryption keys.  

While encryption protects privacy and prevents criminals from tracking police movement, it works best for preplanned tactical or staged situations and  is no longer ideal for emergency situations, according to an article by the Associated Press. For example, when Washington, D.C., firefighters responded to smoke in the subway system, they had trouble communicating via the Metro transit agency’s radio network because the fire department switched to encryption mode and had not informed transit officials, Metro told AP.

Beyond encryption, keeping up with evolving radio technology continues to be a leading concern among police officers.

In a recent Public Technology Institute survey of 9,735 police officers, radio communications was cited as a top technology priority in the next five years.

The lack of advanced radio technology can be partly attributed to the fact that “public-safety officials often have an ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ attitude when it comes to keeping up with technology and funding,” PTI Executive Director Alan Shark said in the report. Some agency  decision-makers ignore technology upgrades because of other funding priorities, the report said, resulting in the use of easily-breakable and outdated technology.

The back end of the system also faces challenges. When survey respondents were asked whether their public-safety answering points had been upgraded to handle next-generation 911, only 20 percent said work had been completed. About one-third of the agencies don’t have 911 upgrade plans.

Nonetheless, agencies will be looking at new technology for the First Responder Network Authority implementation, the nationwide public safety broadband network. When in place, FirstNet will set multi-jurisdictional communications standards, standards for encryption and security for voice data and application streaming.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a Reporter/Producer for GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media, Ziadeh was a contributing journalist for USA Today Travel's Experience Food and Wine site. She's also held a communications assistant position with the University of Maryland Office of the Comptroller, and has reported for the American Journalism Review, Capitol File Magazine and DC Magazine.

Ziadeh is a graduate of the University of Maryland where her emphasis was multimedia journalism and French studies.

Click here for previous articles by Ms. Ziadeh or connect with her on Twitter: @aziadeh610.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Oct 20, 2016 Denis Marin Orange County, California

A lot of this can be traced to agencies' lack of robust encryption planning (i.e., "Fleetmapping" in trunking vernacular). It is our convention that all dispatch and tactical trunked talkgroups/channels used by each law enforcement agency are always operating in encrypted mode, that cannot be defeated by operators - for any reason - period! We also have a number of unencrypted talkgroups/channels that are,conversely, always operating in unencrypted mode, and cannot become encrypted for any reason - period! Every radio in our fleet is "hard-programmed" according to this convention. Thus, all our inter-agency, Mutual Aid, etc. are ALWAYS conducted in unencrypted ("clear")mode. Since an agency from outside our network coming into our operational area likely would not have the correct encryption key loaded in their radios anyway, Mutual Aid incidents will always at least start out on unencrypted channels. The convention calls for either 100%encrypted or unencrypted operation on every talkgroup or conventional channel- unchangeable by any radio operator. Our system has successfully operated this way for going on fifteen years with never an issue with an inability to communicate due to an encryption issue.

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