As Denver Police Encrypt Radios, Firefighters Follow Suit

The city's fire department wasn't planning on encrypting its radios until it learned that it would be more difficult to communicate with the police if they didn't. One automated channel will remain open after the change.

by Elise Schmelzer, The Denver Post / March 1, 2019

(TNS) — Following the lead of Denver police, radio traffic from the Denver Fire Department will no longer be accessible to the public starting next month, though one automated dispatch channel will remain open.

Fire department leaders in January made the decision to encrypt their radio traffic to make it easier to communicate with police, who decided to encrypt their traffic as well, fire department spokesman Greg Pixley said. Both agencies use the same radios, he said.

“What police are doing, we are following,” Pixley said.

The fire department’s radio traffic will disappear from public scanners at 4 a.m. March 18, Pixley said. However, the public will still be able to listen to automated dispatch alerts that tell firefighters where to go and the basics of what is happening there, though communication from firefighters on scene will be blocked, he said.

The Denver Police Department’s radio traffic will also go silent that day, despite earlier estimates that it would take until at least April to switch to the new technology.

Denver police Chief Paul Pazen said last month that news organizations would have the option to sign an agreement with the city to gain access to the encrypted channels. But that agreement isn’t expected to be ready before March 18, spokesman Sonny Jackson said Tuesday.

“Things are moving quicker than we realized,” he said.

Denver police have not yet said what they’ll ask local news organizations to agree to before being granted access to the city’s encrypted radio traffic.

The change comes as a 911 communications center is completed and officers and firefighters receive new radios. Pazen said the change will help keep sensitive information from being broadcast publicly and keep suspects and criminals from keeping tabs on police operations.

Pixley said in November that the fire department was not planning on encrypting its channels, but he said Tuesday that the department later learned it would need to do so to facilitate easy communication with police. It’s difficult to switch between encrypted and unencrypted channels, he said, and echoed Pazen’s concerns about sensitive information being broadcast.

It was simpler to encrypt everything, Pixley said.

“We want to have some degree of control over those super-sensitive calls that we have,” Pixley said. “We also want to limit the ability of sensitive information to get out.”

Pixley said the agreement between news outlets and the city would also grant access to the fire department’s communications.

Representatives from the Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition have previously expressed concern about Denver’s decision to encrypt, saying it would inhibit journalists’ abilities to report breaking news.

At least 28 other public safety agencies in the state encrypt their radio traffic.

©2019 The Denver Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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