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Scanner airwaves going dark as first responders switch to encrypted radios

Critics are concerned that a move to encrypted communications by Metro Vancouver first responders will prevent people from obtaining the information they might need. Ted Chernecki reports.

The Surrey Fire Service has switched to a new encrypted digital radio system and the BC Ambulance Service will soon be doing the same.

And that means little information from emergency responder calls, if any, will seep out to the public over the airwaves.

The move to encrypted digital radios from the traditional analogue devices that have been in use since 1999 began back in April, according to a media release earlier this year from E-Comm, B.C.’s primary emergency service radio operator.

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Over 30 emergency service providers in the region have switched or are switching to the new “P25” network, in a process expected to wrap by the end of the year.

E-Comm said the “next generation” radios are more reliable, waterproof and provide greater audio clarity with noise-cancelling technology.

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They’re also safer according to Deputy Surrey Fire Chief Larry Thomas.

“Scanners may be able to detect that there are transmissions but they will not be able to decrypt the emergency service messages once the system is fully activated for all agencies,” Thomas said.

“That means the communication is kept secure and out of the hands of other people who may listen to it and monitor it for nefarious purposes that pose a threat for first responders.”

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Those threats, according to Thomas, could come from terrorists or criminals listening to an active police operation.

But what may be good news for emergency crews will come at a loss for radio scanner fans and newsrooms that will no longer be able to hear radio chatter, and that has some critics concerned.

“Whenever a window that sheds light onto police and first responder activities is closed, closed to the public, closed to the media, I think the public ought to be asking questions,” said Josh Patterson with the BC Civil Liberties Association.

It’s a perspective shared by the region’s “stringers,” freelance videographers that are often first on the scene of breaking news events, where being early is a critical part of getting accurate first-hand accounts from eye-witnesses.

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Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said he’s sensitive to the criticisms.

“I think it’s one of those things that as technology evolves, we need to be aware that accountability and transparancy need to move along at the same time.”

The New Westminster and Port Moody police departments were the first to make the switch back in April.

By year’s end, they’ll be joined by all of the region’s police forces, the BC Ambulance Service, a dozen Lower Mainland fire departments and the BC Conservation Officer Service.

In the meantime, popular social media accounts such as @ScanBC, which monitors and publishes calls over the scanner airwaves, could potentially fold as real-time emergency information dries up.

-With files from Ted Chernecki

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