Scanner listening will soon be thwarted

Published 6:49 pm Tuesday, August 7, 2018

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Isle of Wight County’s new public safety radio system is slated to go online in mid-October, and there will be a notable change when that occurs. 

In addition to clearer communications and regional coverage, law enforcement calls will be encrypted, meaning the general public will no longer be able to monitor activity via a scanner, according to Project Manager Terry Hall.

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Fire and rescue calls, however, will remain on an open channel, said Hall. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Hall said this has become a standard in law enforcement for privacy and other reasons.

If someone is pulled over for a traffic stop, he or she doesn’t want the rest of the community to hear about it, nor have their personal information openly transmitted, said Hall. 

Lt. Ron Bryan, who heads up the Isle of Wight County Emergency Communications Center, said there have also been cases where criminals listen to scanners and monitor the movement of law enforcement. 

Bryan said that hasn’t been the case recently, but many years ago that occurred in Smithfield, when youth carrying portable scanners were going through neighborhoods. 

“They hear us, they know when we’re there,” said Bryan of a typical call across the scanner. 

To maintain transparency, deputies wear body cameras and cameras are also installed on their vehicles, Bryan said. 

Bryan encourages residents to sign up for Isle of Wight Alert, which sends out alerts for all types of situations, such as when an area is being blocked off for an emergency situation. 

Meagan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said while there is no inherent right of residents to listen in on scanner traffic, it has been used historically for locating emergency situations and breaking news. 

At the same time, encrypting calls could interfere with journalists’ ability to get the word out on certain situations, she said. 

Rhyne said what is troubling is that there has been no change in the transmission of personal information, and if there’s a way to protect privacy without shutting off media access entirely, it would be a good compromise. 

Meanwhile, those still wanting to listen to radio traffic would need to buy an 800-megahertz scanner, but that would not provide access to the encrypted channels, said Robertson. 

The $8 million new radio system consists of five towers and related equipment. The towers will also allow for cellular and broadband providers to attach equipment, if desired. 

In addition to law enforcement and first responders, the system will also serve the public schools and public works departments. 

The new public safety radio system will replace an outdated and disjointed system that has inadequate coverage that can leave first responders without an ability to communicate.   {/mprestriction}