Digital system silent on scanners

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By Damon Lawrence

People who like to monitor police radio traffic on scanners may have noticed a lot of silence lately. 

That’s because police and other emergency agencies are now using a new communications system.

Robert Langley, assistant director for Roane County E-911, said it’s a 700/800 MHz digital system. 

It may mean scanner silence for the general public, but Langley said the new system has interoperability, which allows better communication between police, firemen and other emergency workers.  

Law enforcement and other emergency agencies got new radios to communicate on the system. 

“These new radios will all talk to each other,” Emergency Management Director Howie Rose said. 

Rose said the old system didn’t allow that.  

“If I went on a car wreck and I needed to talk to the deputy that was over the hill directing traffic, I would have to radio dispatch and say would you please pass this information to the deputy,” he said. “Then that dispatcher would have to radio him on another radio.

“We don’t have to do that anymore. That’s a big plus.”
The radios are made by Motorola, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based company that spends millions of dollars lobbying the federal government on the need for better communications system. 

Rose said a federal grant wasn’t able to supply the county with all the radios it needed, so the county purchased an additional 265 Motorola radios for $540,511.

“They’re expensive,” Rose said. “They’re very expensive.”
Rose said the new radios also aren’t the easiest thing to take out of a box and operate. 

“There’s 16 channels in a bank, and there’s like five banks in a radio,” Rose said. “You got to move from bank to channel. There was a little bit of a learning curve on them, but I think at the end of the day it will be better because we can talk to each other.”

Officials said there are scanners on the market that can pick up the radio traffic on the new system, but they cost around $400. 

Forking over those bucks for a scanner still might not do any good.
Agencies can encrypt the new radios to prevent their communications from being heard.     

Roane County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tim Phillips said his department has 15 radios that are encrypted. Those are used for tactical and sensitive communications, he said.

“Most of the radios are non-encrypted,” he said.        

Rose said none of the emergency management radios are encrypted. 

“I don’t care if the public hears my conversation,” he said. “We’re talking about road blocks for floods or hazardous material releases, big fires. It doesn’t matter to us. I didn’t see the need for us to have an encrypted radio system.”

Langley said E-911 is not encrypting general dispatch calls.