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Upgrade encrypts channels on police scanners


– On Tuesday, local scanner junkies and police aficionados will lose access to the radio channels used by the area’s biggest law enforcement agencies and emergency services organizations.

Beginning Tuesday, a long-planned upgrade by the Consolidated Communications Partnership – the official name given to Allen County and Fort Wayne dispatch centers – will go into effect.

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.

Encryption technology is already in use on a handful of the channels available to local emergency services, particularly channels used by the emergency services teams and in tactical operations.

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.

The new system, with its state-of-the-art encryption, is impossible to monitor, York said.

In 2009, Allen County and city dispatch centers went to an 800-megahertz system after a federal mandate to keep push-to-talk cellphones from interfering with emergency radio traffic.

The push for the new system is born out of a similar need expressed by the Federal Communications Commission to go to narrower bands, again because of continued interference with radio communication, according to Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries.

But Fries expressed frustration with the equipment companies that built planned operational obsolescence into their systems, necessitating the frequent replacement of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment.

It was a frustration he had years ago when the now-old system was installed, and his irritation has not abated with time.

“Technology grows and changes,” Fries said. “It needs to be as modular as possible so that we can swap out parts for the entire system.”

Allen County Director of Homeland Security Bernie Beier had not been included in the radio discussion, as he is not a member of the Consolidated Communications Partnership.

But he was not concerned about the new system, which will work compatibly with the old unencrypted 800-megahertz radios on unencrypted channels.

There had long been a concern about sensitive information being broadcast over unencrypted channels, and much of that information was shared over cellphones, Beier said. While that was effective, it did not allow a record to be made of the calls, Beier said.

The new system will be recorded, meaning that traffic – even the most sensitive information – can be reviewed by officials as needed, Beier said.

“I think encryption fixes a lot of programs they have,” Beier said. “There’s a lot of different angles to this.”

Even though local volunteer fire departments still use the old VHF-based system – primarily because of its relatively low expense and ease of paging – the departments do have access to the 800-megahertz system, said Fort Wayne Fire Chief Amy Biggs, also a member of the Consolidated Communications Partnership.

And while volunteer fire officials praise the reliability of the VHF system, Fries said long-needed improvements to the 800-megahertz system will bring increased reliability in the upgrade.

Those upgrades include additional radio towers to reduce dead spots in rural areas and improve signal reliability for firefighters, who have often lost communications when working inside buildings, Fries said.

“We’ll find out if the distance is any better with the extra coverage,” he said. “Hopefully, (this issue) has been eradicated.”

Other benefits to the new radio system – which accounts for about $8.5 million of the total cost – include GPS technology in the hand-held radios.

“For me, that is one of the most exciting things about it,” Fries said. “That will be a lifesaver.”

Now, if an officer or a firefighter is in trouble, he or she can push the emergency button, and dispatchers will immediately be able to determine the exact location of the emergency responder, Fries said.

The new system is also P-25 compliant, as are all new radio systems in the state, Fries said.

Project 25 is the standard for radio communication system interoperability and compatibility for public safety agencies throughout North America.

In plain language, it means that if the sheriff is driving his police vehicle to a meeting in Indianapolis and he comes upon a crash, he can immediately pick up his radio and key the microphone. That transmission on this system will be heard by any other Project 25-compliant radio in the area.

No longer would he have to search the radio to find a channel that would work.

“It should go to the closest police department that can hear me,” he said.

A few years ago, the Indiana State Police also went to the 800-megahertz system, and it, too, is compatible with the new city-county system, Fries said.

In the last meeting before the rollout Friday morning, officials with the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority were on hand to discuss newly discovered issues with their telephone system and the new communications technology. The problem was resolved by a technology loan from the Consolidated Community Partnership.

The first problem to reveal itself, usually, in a disaster is trouble with communications – and even with the new system, Fries anticipates some difficulties.

But any unanticipated issues will be studied and learned from in an effort to keep them from happening again, Fries said.