Most city radio transmissions to remain open to the public after switch to digital
Feb 08, 2013 (Billings Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Most of the radio communications between Billings city agencies will remain available to the public using scanners after the city switched over last month to a new digital signal and system.
When the switch happened in mid-January, analog scanners fell silent.
City officials said they were discussing encrypting some of the frequencies -- including for the police department -- meaning people with digital scanners couldn't listen in without being granted access by the city.
This week, City Administrator Tina Volek said most of the transmissions will remain open to the public.
"We will keep the line open in which dispatch sends messages out to police and fire crews," she said. "This is obviously public information and it is accessible."
However, those wanting access will need a new scanner capable of decoding the digital signal. Those scanners are upwards of $400 for a basic model.
Anne Kindness, manager of the Billings City/County Emergency Communications Center, said they must also be compliant with Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International Inc. Project 25.
APCO P25 is a set of established standards across numerous brands, makes and models of communications systems and equipment that ensures they'll all work together, a departure from previous practices in which one company's equipment wouldn't work with that of another, often giving the manufacturers the upper hand in sales negotiations, Kindness said.
"It opens up competitiveness and it gives us a chance to go out and get the best deal we can," she said. "With this set of standards, it's really made a huge difference for public safety."
While the dispatches to public agencies will remain open, some have been encrypted. Billings Police Department Chief Rich St. John said communication for special or covert operations and groups such as the SWAT team won't be available to the public.
The calls from the dispatch center to police and fire will be broadcast openly but discussions continue on whether or not the city will encrypt public safety field chatter, such as officer-to-officer communication during an incident.
St. John cited officer safety concerns and the possibility of criminals listening in on police communication as possible reasons for the encryption.
"I'd be remiss if I didn't try to protect our officers and their interests while on the job," he said.
That decision isn't likely to come soon, however, because it will take extra money that has yet to be included in the budget and technical assistance to implement, St. John said.
Billings Fire Department Chief Paul Dextras could not be reached for comment.
Volek said she made this week's decision not to encrypt all communication after consulting with police and fire officials, as well as the city's legal team, to reach a middle ground.
"We had a discussion and went over the options and this seemed to be the one that met everyone's needs and provided equal opportunity access," she said.
The city replaced the 15-year-old analog system after it became apparent that it couldn't be upgraded. A 2004 federal mandate ordered a switch to narrowband signals by Jan. 1, 2013.
Kindness said the $2.2 million upgrade is going well, although there are always kinks to work out with new systems.
"This was such a major switch for us and with that you can anticipate that you're going to be chasing issues for four to six weeks," she said. "Overall, we're really satisfied."
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