Radio scanners and apps will soon pick up only the sound of silence in McPherson County as a new system is installed that will include encryption across all emergency channels.
"We started this process two and a half years ago," said Julie McClure, emergency management director for McPherson County.
Radio tests conducted in McPherson County in 2016 determined the current one-tower state of Kansas communication systems failed to allow messages to be sent or received clearly about 36 percent of the time when officials tried to use handheld radios to contact dispatch from inside buildings.
"We have a lot of dead spots and then just old technology fails and until somebody tried to use it, you don't know it's failing," McClure said.
Additionally, the county's own radio system, which is used by the fire department, emergency medical services, law enforcement, highway patrol, wildlife and parks staff, county public works personnel and the McPherson County Communication dispatch center has aged.
"Most of our radio system – our equipment and our infrastructure — was put in in 1992," McClure said. "...We've well exceeded the lifespan of our original system."
The new system, purchased from the Harris Corporation, will cost the county $7.5 million for equipment plus $4 million for 15 years of maintenance and is scheduled to be up and running by mid-2020.
"It'll take about 13 to 18 months, depending on weather and contractors, because it's all going to be brand new — new towers, new buildings, everything," McClure said.
New radio towers will be built in Moundridge, Lindsborg, Roxbury and at the Law Enforcement Center in McPherson. After their construction, the signal will be tested around the county and if two adjacent, square-mile grids fail, a bidirectional antenna will be installed to boost the reception.
"All areas will be getting 96 percent coverage — in buildings and on the street — and some will be getting 98 percent coverage," McClure said. "...Having better coverage is key to responder safety."
McPherson's new radio system will have Project 25 capability, allowing radios from any manufacturer to communicate with each other for agency interoperability, along with providing access to the state's Motorola-based system and mutual aid channels used by other counties.
"In today's world, you have to change systems, then you have to change channels," McClure said. "In tomorrow's world, you'll simply have to turn the dial on the radio."
Another impact of installing the new system is the switch to encrypted channels, blocking the public's access to dispatch radio traffic.
"It's pretty much standard across the board for agencies now to do that once they upgrade to a new radio system," McClure said.
One issue McClure hopes to see less of with the change to encrypted channels is individuals posting the details of an emergency situation — which may have been misunderstood — in social media groups.
Another reason for the change to encryption is first responder safety.
"That's just best practice," McClure said. "...If somebody's looking to take out a responder, all you've got to do is get a scanner and sit and listen. I know where they're going, I know what they're doing, I know they're looking for me, I'm going to sit over here and wait to pick them off when they come to my house."
Harvey County Director of Communications Don Gruver disagrees with that line of thought and said encrypting all radio channels may alienate both a community's citizens and the media.
"I am a firm believer that encryption does have a place, but it's very limited," Gruver said.
Letting the public listen in on dispatch radio traffic is more beneficial than harmful, according to Gruver, because it gives them information that is pertinent to their location such as severe weather warnings and reports of criminal activity.
"People like to know what's going on, they like to be aware of what's going on in the neighborhood and around them," Gruver said. "If they hear on the scanner that there's been a lot of break-ins, they're more (vigilant)."
Initial calls from Harvey County's dispatch go out over an unencrypted channel and, if necessary, an incident command system is set up during the response to the call and radio traffic is switched to encrypted channels. The Emergency Response Team and drug task force also use encrypted channels, Gruver noted, but he is against encrypting the standard dispatch channel.
"The perception is that criminals out there are listening to scanners and apps, avoiding detection and being caught. We're just not seeing that. It's completely overblown," Gruver said. "...It's more of an awareness tool. We don't see it being used as a criminal tool."
Encrypting radio channels will also not eliminate people choosing to post about emergency situations, Gruver said.
"Social media is so prevalent in everyone's lives now that if an accident happens and friends or family see it, they're posting about it before even calling 911," Gruver said.
Gruver said he sees social media posts as more of a threat to first responder safety.
"It's probably more far-reaching and accessible than the scanner apps are," Gruver said.
Gruver also worries that having to switch between encrypted and non-encrypted channels could hamper law enforcement efforts that cross county lines.
"If an officer is involved in a high-speed chase, the last thing he wants to do is reach down and mess with the channel he's on," Gruver said. "...My opinion would be to leave those dispatch channels open and clear so everybody can help each other out when the need arises."