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technology upgrades because of other funding priorities, the report said, resulting in the use of easily-breakable and outdated technology.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 former reporter/producer for GCN.


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