BEND, OR -- Deschutes County first responders will switch, this week, to a digital radio system, which allows law enforcement agencies to encrypt transmissions so they can’t be heard by those monitoring scanners. Deschutes County 911 Director Steve Reinke says the current analog radio system is failing and must be replaced. But, he says the decision to encrypt some transmissions came from the heads of local law enforcement agencies.
Bend Police Chief Jim Porter has been working on the transition for a couple years. He tells KBND News the upgrade will improve officer safety, "We have this new technology to be able to use the digital format for broadcasting our radios, which gives us much better penetration into buildings. A lot of people do not know this but, quite frankly, there are dead spots in Bend where police officers cannot transmit from; and this takes care of all those spots." But, tech improvements, Chief Porter says, is a double-edged sword. "When we discussed encrypting, one of the things we hear strongest from officers on the street is, there's an app, which allows anyone to turn their cell phone into an immediate scanner in real-time. Well, that adds a layer of complication to our job."
While that job can be complicated by a curious public and members of the media monitoring scanners, Porter says the biggest concern is public safety and the safety of officers responding to potentially volatile situations. "We pulled up some actual reports from this past year. One instance was we were looking for an individual who was wanted for a robbery; an individual who was a threat to the public. We'd been tipped off that he was potentially inside of a local tavern or pub. As we approached, of course the officers did what we always do: they parked two blocks away, got out, called dispatch from the radio and said, 'we're out at this location.' As they came in, the individual was gone but they heard the scanner running in the background."
Some officers changed radios Wednesday morning, but Porter says the full transition won't be complete for about a month. He says he understands there are people who like to monitor scanners, and they still can. "We're not totally cutting the public off from that. It's going to be 'live streamed' over the internet with a 30-minute delay. I've heard people say, '30 minutes is forever!' Well, those people have never shared a crime scene with me, or a search for an armed suspect. Thirty minutes is a very minimal time when you're trying to set up a perimeter; trying to figure out what the facts are; trying to figure out where the murder suspect is. It's not like we're hiding from the public."
Chief Porter says the digital transition fulfills state and federal requirements, and he points out that a number of other law enforcement agencies in Oregon already encrypt their transmissions. Most local fire and medical crews will also make the switch to digital radios in the coming months, but Porter says those will not be encrypted and therefore will be available to the public in real-time through various scanner apps.