Goodbye, Scanner. Austin Police, Fire, EMS will Stop Making Messages Available to Public

Austin Texas Police Patch

Public safety agencies in Austin — police, fire and EMS — will soon go radio silent to the public after they switch to an encrypted radio system.

This means that the current publicly available scanner information, which residents can use to listen to police being dispatched to a call in real time, will no longer be accessible starting April 22.

A press release sent by the city on Wednesday states that moving the Austin Police Department, the Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County EMS to an encrypted radio system “protects personal and confidential information of members of the public interacting with law enforcement.” Additionally, unencrypted radio chatter can “provide criminals with advance warning of police actions and law enforcement tactics.”

Encrypting the Police Department’s radio system was first suggested as part of the department’s recommendations in its aftermath report on the social justice protests in 2020.

The report noted that police eventually learned people were broadcasting their movements and changing their tactics in response, causing the department to move to special encrypted channels. However, it said at the time that there were only a “handful” of encrypted channels and recommended fully encrypting the department’s radio chatter.

Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills told the American-Statesman he’s not entirely sure what led to the decision to encrypt the radio system. He said it has been in the works for some time but took awhile because all of the agencies had to coordinate with one another.

Wednesday’s press release notes that other large cities, such as Fort Worth, San Francisco and New York, also use an Advanced Encryption Standard radio system.

All of the city’s public safety agencies post updates to social media about some major events, such as those resulting in death or large fires. However, accessing the scanner information allows members of the media and the public to hear things that might go unreported online.

Michael Schneider, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs for the Texas Association of Broadcasters, said this move is not uncommon, noting that Bexar County did it in the 1990s and others across the country started to encrypt radio systems after 9/11.

However, he said Bexar County will make scanners available to local newsrooms so a third party still can listen to the happenings of police, firefighters and medics.

Encrypting radio systems can also cause local governments to appear less transparent about how they are spending taxpayer dollars, decreasing public trust in local municipalities, Schneider said.

“You’re (now) entirely dependent on local government to tell you what’s going on,” Schneider said. “And by and large, many people who do work in local government are very good at doing that. But that’s not always the case.”

Mills said he’s not opposed to letting media agencies access a scanner, but he’s not sure logistically how that would work, such as if there are technological, legal or cost barriers.

“If there’s a mechanism to achieve that, I think we ought to have a conversation,” Mills said.

The press release said the agencies will continue using social media, web updates, press releases and on-scene briefings to alert the public about crime and other incidents occurring throughout the city.

The use of encrypted channels will only happen within the city’s public safety departments and not when they work with an agency outside of the city, the release said.

“This is a positive move for the City of Austin and, in particular, the Austin Police Department,” Mills said in the press release. “Encrypting radio communication means we can do a better job of keeping our community members and emergency responders safe during an ongoing security threat.” 

Source for this Article: Austin American-Statesman

Photo Courtesy: KXAN