Fire departments don’t get the message with encrypted radios

WASHINGTON — The response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, exposed communications limitations and vulnerabilities. Agencies had trouble speaking to each other. Regional leaders would later demand improvements and interoperability.

Thirteen years later, the Washington region enjoys what one official calls “seamless communication” across jurisdictions.

But this week, a plan made earlier to encrypt radio channels at D.C Fire and Emergency Medical Service set off confusion, concern and warnings among the region’s first responders.

D.C. Fire plans to encrypt its tactical channels, although the start date for that is now uncertain. The encryption means only officials and firefighters with direct access will be able to listen.

Also, it is unclear how many channels will be open and available.

“The specifics of this have not been ironed out,” says Keith St. Clair, a spokesman for Deputy Mayor Paul Quander.

He insists the encrypted channels will not include dispatch channels and that communication with neighboring counties will not hit a road block.

But the word of encrypted radio channels, potentially coming soon, set off a unison outcry across the region.

“It seems ironic that on the week we memorialize Sept. 11, when 343 fire firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice … it seems like we’re taking a step backwards,” says Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Fire Department.

He noted problems in New York and at the Pentagon with agencies struggling to communicate.

“They’re going to have a couple channels that are going to remain in the clear that we’ll be able to operate on if we go over there, but it does break interoperability,” says Michael Gowen, a battalion chief with Arlington County Fire.

“We’re not going to be able to operate on their encrypted channels,” he says.

D.C. Fire adamantly rejects the belief that its move to encrypted channels will compromise help from neighboring departments.

“We are not going to enter into any type of situation with our radios that would endanger mutual aid situations,” St. Clair says. “We are not going to ask them come on scene and help us respond to a situation when their personnel cannot communicate with ours.”

Departments nearby remain uncertain, possibly and paradoxically because D.C. Fire hasn’t communicated that assurance effectively.

The escalating rhetoric comes at a time neighboring fire departments have been given a heads up: seven D.C. Fire ladder trucks failed inspection and had to be removed from service last week.

Believing D.C. Fire could move to encrypt radios as early as Friday, rank-and- file to department brass have criticized the plan and offered dire warnings.

“If they had their radios encrypted, and we were unable to communicate, it would be a life safety issue for our firefighters,” says Pete Piringer, a spokesman for Montgomery County Fire.

Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor opposes the move as well.

“In the years since 9-11-01, the National Capital Region has achieved the enviable position of having most public safety agencies operating on a common operating platform,” his statement, published by Fox 5 says.

“In the week that we memorialize the events of 9-11-01, encryption without a common regional approach amounts to taking a step backwards in the National Capital Region interoperability, that we have previously achieved,” he says.

The idea to encrypt radio signals gained momentum following the Navy Yard shooting, which happened nearly one year ago to the week.

Transmissions were available on radios and online.

Public safety officials wanted to shield responders on the scene from media and other members of the public telegraphing their movements. In that case, an active shooter was killing victims, but responders’ plans and locations were not encrypted.

Critics of the encryption plan hypothesize a worst-case scenario, in which responders across the region would be needed. They fear the newly-encrypted signals would compromise their ability to communicate during a response in the District.

D.C. Fire maintains they would not, due to the availability of dispatch channels.

The plan to encrypt lines has been put on hold for now. Next Wednesday, fire departments across the region will meet to sort out the details and get on the same page.

The meeting was scheduled before concerns arose over encryption.

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