Op/Ed – EComm Scanner Encryption – Why The Public SHOULD Be Able To Hear The Scanner

(With An Editorial from Dave Youell) As of January 19, 2016 –  9-1-1 calls in the Fraser Valley have been fielded by E-Comm, the emergency communication centre located in Vancouver. E-Comm services  Chilliwack, Mission, Hope, Kent, Harrison Hot Springs and Electoral Areas A through H. Along with Abbotsford, Surrey and Langley EMS, fans of monitoring and listening to “scanner chatter” have been able to hear the day to day workings of Fire, Police, and Ambulance services.

But that has changed with the move for many EMS to move to encrypted coding. You CAN NOT monitor the inner workings anymore and that $200 scanner of yours is now collecting dust.

With encrypted coding, for the most part, your scanner can not pick up any more of that eavesdropping as encoded technology prohibits you from monitoring.

For Police work, it really is a no-brainer. Sensitive information could be heard by the “bad guys”. However media needs to know, not just to follow the story, but to relay traffic information for you to stay away from a police investigation as they work.

For Fire Departments, there is a different argument. Again, media needs to know to cover the story and ensure traffic stays clear. Their information is not really as sensitive as Police. If a fire is causing a major problem leading to evacuation, media NEEDS TO KNOW ASAP.

Dave Youell is a retired chief engineer for a major media company, who has done a lot of photography work in the 80’s and 90’s for various fire departments including on seen photo coverage of major fires.

This is his take on the changes to the scanner system:

I read with interest and watch various TV news stories about EComm encrypting radio communications for the various fire departments in the lower mainland plus some thru the interior of BC. This has also been done for the police and ambulance communications. Just to give you some background. I am a retire chief engineer for a major broadcasting company. I have also done work with various lower mainland fire departments covering fires back in the 80’s and 90’s I was one of the few civilians that actually had a fire line pass issued by the Vancouver Fire department.
There are time I can see a need for secrecy in radio communications particularly with the police department. There can also be some justification for some of the fire department communications to be encrypted. Over the years I have listened to a lot of radio calls of which the vast majority are standard calls (if a call can ever be standard). Occasionally I would hear a dispatcher asking a crew to call dispatch by phone for further information.
I am going to digress here for a bit. I was talking a long time ago about the possible amalgamation of the various fire departments in the region. He felt it would never happen due to local politics. He said that the taxpayer when they drive by a fire hall and see the shiny fire trucks, they have a sense of ownership and feel that their tax dollars are going to good use. Fire departments and firefighters have always been held in high regard by citizens.
Under the old system a media outlet would be able to monitor the various fire departments . When they hear of a major incident they dispatch a reporter and camera (for TV) to cover the story. They get a clip, or sound bite of the chief or incident commander telling the audience what a tough fire it was to fight and some of the difficulties they had. The person (and taxpayer) look at the report and think what a good job was done and how they are doing a good job protecting me.
The argument has been made that the fire department will notify the media of an incident. This maybe true of larger departments, but small departments do not have the resources for someone to be sitting there sending out messages about a fire. It comes down to the media hearing about an incident after the fact, and in this day of immediacy the story will get lost.
Lets look at this from another angle. Under the old system the general public knew what the fire department was doing. Come budget time they would support the chief asking for more money because they know what a good job the department is doing. Would the general public have that knowledge under the new system?
From a technical aspect, if there is a need for encryption due to a special case incident,the new radios can easily be programmed to have specific channels for this purpose.
In closing, the various agencies need to be careful how they control information. AT the end of the day, the taxpayers pay the bill. If they do not understand the need or they don’t agree with the need, they will let their local elected representative know.

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