Browse Content by Topic:
You're Not Listening: Issues on Public Safety Radio Monitoring
Author: Barry Furey
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
The monitoring of public safety communications has long been a pastime for many. Scanner sales skyrocketed in the 1970s as people discovered that their local airwaves contained a 24/7 reality show that was free to all. At first, plug-in crystals were required for each frequency desired, and devices were limited to both the number and range of channels received. Local electronics stores, back when there were such things, typically stocked the components required to listen to regional agencies, but new frequencies and special requests involved the shipping of parts directly from the manufacturer. And if, for example, the fire department was on low band, and the police department was on high, you had to buy two scanners in order to listen to them both.
As time progressed, monitors became more sophisticated and were designed to manage multiple bands and allowed for the keying in of frequencies. One size did indeed fit all. However, as scanners progressed so did radio systems, and the ongoing development of trunking created a leap-frog competition between those who did the talking and those who did the listening.
Likely, the majority of folks monitoring the airwaves did so with good intentions. Among these were citizens who were just interested in what was going on in their neighborhood, and others, such as volunteer firefighters, rescue squad members, and EMS providers who found that scanning gave them a jump on dispatching. It was not an uncommon practice in bygone days for law enforcement agencies to send an officer to check out all types of emergencies prior to requesting additional assistance. Obviously, this meant that response to many critical calls was delayed, and “eavesdropping” on those channels somewhat mitigated the effect. Also, keeping track of events in adjacent communities provided a pre-alert to significant incidents that might result in mutual aid, allowing resources to mobilize up front.
The media, as well, made and still makes use of monitoring the airwaves for breaking news. We’ve all had encounters with this aspect of scanning, and likely have stories to tell about good, bad, and ugly experiences relating to the practice. Regardless, it’s hard to argue against public safety radio being a prime source of updates on what’s happening. But not everyone was bestowed with pure motives. Lawyers, tow truck operators, and the morbidly curious rank among those who utilized the information gathered for their own gain. Scanning took ambulance chasing to a new level. But this level was soon to be surpassed.
Live Internet streaming of broadcast feeds brings emergencies worldwide into the home. People who live in fringe reception areas can now receive clear audio from a variety of sources, both official and unofficial. Broadcastify, for example, provides hundreds of channels from which to choose, and at any given time supports thousands of concurrent online users. An occasional visitor myself, I tune in periodically to listen to a communications center 500 miles away where I began my career, as well as to situationally monitor major emergencies nationwide. One of my first actions on 9/11 was to log in to the FDNY and Arlington feeds to gather firsthand intelligence. A number of other sites address selected local and regional needs.
But, as the Lord giveth, He also taketh away, and as web based services began to ramp up, so did the use of encryption by first responders. Now encryption, or “scrambling” as it is sometimes called, doesn’t come cheap, and is not universally endorsed, but it sure does put a crimp on listening. While some fire departments oppose it because it complicates interaction with other responders, many law enforcement agencies offer their endorsement. Critics say it interferes with the concept of citizen involvement and community policing, but advocates cite the need for officer safety. And, after a year when 140 officers died in the line of duty (21 in the month of November alone), it’s hard to refute that argument. After all, criminals are definitely a group that falls within those who monitor the local chatter with less than honorable intentions. Handheld scanners have been frequently found among a burglar’s tools.
In that regard, the need for secrecy, it that’s what you want to call it, is nothing new. Nor is the public’s desire to somehow outsmart the cops. Flashing headlights at oncoming drivers developed as a universal sign of a speed trap ahead. Technology again intervened as truckers turned to CB channel 19 to report “smokies” and “bears in the air.” Social media and navigation applications such as Waze came into being, and raised concerns in law enforcement about the increasing ability to quickly share information about officer locations across a broad platform.
But the most interesting turn in this ongoing chess match came when the City Attorney for Terre Haute, Indiana sent a cease and desist letter to Broadcastify, demanding that they stop streaming the city’s main police channel. The document read, in part, “Given the dangers our police officers face today, having our radio traffic broadcast in real-time has created a serious threat to officer safety, the security of incident scenes, and may hinder the officer's ability to appropriately ascertain and respond to the emergency situation because listeners are at the scene as well.” On a curious, but related, note this is the only frequency in Terra Haute that is not encrypted, so the issue here is not decoding, but rather seems to be the provision of a broader audience for what is already available over the air. Conversely, supporters of ongoing efforts for police transparency take issue with encryption, and have gone so far as filing suit to stop the process in other jurisdictions. As with most issues, there’s also a Facebook page on the subject.
While the Communications Act of 1934 prohibits the divulging of any intercepted communications for benefit, I don’t pretend to be a lawyer, and don’t know if this codicil has ever been brought into play. Frankly, I’m not even sure if it applies to any of the situations discussed. But I do know that law enforcement will continue to focus on officer safety, and that citizens will continue to lobby for openness in government. That’s one conversation that we’ll all be listening to for a long time to come.
With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community. See www.barryfurey.com