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Local emergency scanner transmissions could become off limits to public

Deschutes County already uses encryption for scanner traffic
Phil Wright

East Oregonian

Published on October 31, 2017 7:39PM

Last changed on October 31, 2017 8:36PM

Bill Medlock, 55, spends a lot of time listening to the scanner to update his Facebook page What’s Happening Hermiston. Medlock and other private citizens would not be able to listen police and fire traffic on the scanner if the Umatilla Morrow Radio & Data District adopts a digital radio system.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Bill Medlock, 55, spends a lot of time listening to the scanner to update his Facebook page What’s Happening Hermiston. Medlock and other private citizens would not be able to listen police and fire traffic on the scanner if the Umatilla Morrow Radio & Data District adopts a digital radio system.

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Police and fire scanner transmissions in Umatilla and Morrow counties could soon be silent.

Shawn Halsey is the director of the Umatilla Morrow Radio & Data District, the local governing body with the task of providing public safety communications for emergency agencies in the two counties. He said the district plans to seek bids later this year or in the spring for a radio system that would include the ability to encrypt the signal.

Public agencies including police and fire departments, ambulance services and the Oregon Department of Transportation use public radio frequencies to communicate with the dispatch center and one another.

Deschutes County agencies in late June encrypted their transmissions, according to The Bend Bulletin. The move rendered personal scanners, receivers and smartphone apps silent.

“Encryption is a common thing,” Halsey said. “You won’t find many systems that are not encrypted.”

Deschutes County also plans at some point to provide transmissions online with a 30-minute delay. Halsey said he did not know if Umatilla and Morrow county agencies would take a similar route or make certain transmissions off limits. He said that also could be up to individual agencies.

Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said he is fine with the public having access to the main police channel, but circumstances can arise that create a thin line between officer safety and being open to the public. For tactical situations, encryption could prove valuable.

Even without encryption, Edmiston said, there are workarounds to keep sensitive information private, such as text messages and the police computer system that can send messages between police vehicles. He said those communications also stymie bad guys who might have a scanner or radio.

Encryption also costs, but Halsey said how much would depend on the vendor. He said the data district can afford to pay about $400,000 a year for a radio system.

Edmiston said as a department head he has to keep an eye on the bottom line, and cost for the service could be the deciding factor.

Bill Medlock, a 55-year-old Hermiston man who is never far from a police scanner, is against encryption.

“I hope they never do that,” he said.

Medlock dispatches for a trucking operation and listens to an emergency scanner much of the day. He said he has one in his home office and another in his pickup.

“It’s mainly for the weather,” he said, “I really don’t care where the cops are.”

But he listens to emergency chatter and posts information from some transmissions on the Facebook page What’s Happening Hermiston. When it comes to emergencies, he said, people often immediate information.

“I can update as soon as I hear more,” he said.

The Oregon Department of Transportation’s website Tripcheck.com does not update often enough, he said, so he and others, including a buddy at Meacham, can find out real-time information on road conditions and more.

“We need to know what’s going on,” Medlock said. “I think it’s our right to know what the police are doing, if there is an emergency, a shooting somewhere. We need to know about it then, not the next day. If the freeways are shut down, we need to know.”

Encryption cuts out the public’s right to know, he said, and allows agencies to hide what they do. Medlock said public agencies need a good reason to operate in secret. During a raid or an armed standoff, for example, police probably should not broadcast certain information, he said, but emergency agencies also should let people know what places to avoid or when to stay indoors.

“It’s not just a safety situation for police, but also concern for others that could show up,” he said.

Halsey said the data district board and local agencies are going to have to answer whether public safety outweighs the public’s right to know. Halsey said he did not have that answer.



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