British Columbia

Radio silence: B.C.'s Lower Mainland first responders move to encrypted communications

Media and the public in the region will have to wait for the 'official word' on emergencies, when first responders in the Lower Mainland move to a new digitally-encrypted radio system.

Changes will improve safety, say emergency responders

The new radios have new safety and durability features for firefighters. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Analogue radios, which have been used by first responders — from police to firefighters — for decades, will soon fall silent across B.C.'s Lower Mainland as authorities move to encrypt their transmissions.

The radios are being replaced by a new network — known as the P25 Phase 2 radio system — that will scramble broadcasts, making them inaudible to the public.

By the end of this year, the radio chatter once heard between officials in Lower Mainland fire, police and ambulance services will grow quiet.

A spokesperson for Emergency Communications for British Columbia Inc, (E-Comm) the Lower Mainland's 911 call and dispatch centre for fire and police, said the move is designed to protect sensitive information shared over the radios, namely patients' medical conditions and addresses.

However, not everyone is happy with the switch. Some worry the move will curtail the public's ability to monitor public emergencies.

Chris Danroth runs a YouTube channel with videos of fire crews responding to emergencies in Vancouver. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Listeners shut out

"I've been listening to the scanners since I was 12 years old," said Chris Danroth, a self-described scanner enthusiast who shoots video of fire trucks in action in Vancouver.

"With encryption ... it's going to have a huge impact on me."

Danroth often waits for calls about active fires to come in on his scanner — a device that picks up chatter between emergency crews — before grabbing his camera and rushing to a scene.

"I'm not into filming crime scenes or bad car accidents because of the patients," he said. "But filming fires and all that, it's what I'm into."

Scanners like these can be used to listen to broadcasts between emergency crews responding to car crashes, fires, and medical emergencies. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The move also will have an impact on media organizations, which for decades have relied on scanners to track everything from serious car accidents, to floods, storms and other emergencies that affect the public.

One expert said previous moves to phase out analogue radios in other jurisdictions sparked questions about how the public will receive unfiltered information about these events.

"Typically what happens is the media start to ask how they will be notified of specific events," said Richard Frank, assistant professor at Simon Fraser University's criminology department.

"When other ... agencies in other parts of the world have switched over to digital, these questions always came up."

Without scanners, media outlets must rely on authorities to keep them abreast of public emergencies.

First responder safety

Right now, fire departments are the last remaining first responders in the Lower Mainland that still use unencrypted radios.

Police have already been communicating through channels which are unreadable by analogue scanners for a number of years. They said they made the switch to prevent criminals from listening in on sensitive events.

The creation of the Lower Mainland's new $60-million system began around 2011 when first responders wanted better safety features for crews in the field.

A spokesperson for E-Comm said the new radios have GPS locators and provide better reception for firefighters working inside confined spaces.

Port Moody Fire Chief Ron Coulson, whose department made the switch in April, praised the new system.

"The environments our staff find themselves in — including high heat, tight quarters, limited visibility — require our units to be very, very durable," said Ron Coulson.

The new radios with their better reception, will improve safety for firefighters, Coulson said.

E-COMM said the decision to use encrypted or unencrypted radio channels will be left to the individual agencies. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

'Protecting confidentiality and security'

The B.C. move to encrypt first responders' radio transmissions follows a similar move in Metro Toronto, where police, fire and ambulance switched to the same system in 2015.

Ultimately, Toronto Fire and Emergency Medical services opted to stay unencrypted, leaving police encrypted on their own.

Vancouver Fire Chief Darrell Reid, previously a deputy chief for the Toronto Fire Service, is overseeing the final steps in the Vancouver department's transition.

Reid defended the move to encrypt emergency calls.

"We know that the media and the public need information for various reasons about emergencies that are occurring," said Reid, whose department is scheduled to adopt the changes in June.

"I'm confident that Vancouver ... will be looking at ways to be transparent and to communicate, but still [be] mindful of protecting confidentiality and security."​


Gian-Paolo Mendoza

Video Journalist

Gian-Paolo (GP) Mendoza is a video journalist with CBC Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gpsmendoza.


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