District fire department considering encrypting scanner communications

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is considering encrypting its radios to prevent the public from listening in as firefighters battle blazes and respond to other emergencies around the District.

Paul A. Quander Jr. , the deputy mayor for public safety, said citizens would still be able to listen to the dispatch calls but would no longer be able to follow firefighters and paramedics in real time. A final decision has not been made, but Quander said Wednesday that it’s “going to be one of the real strong recommendations that comes out of our after-action reviews of the Washington Navy Yard incident.”

The mass shooting in September left 12 people dead and prompted a dangerous search by police as they hunted the shooter before finally killing him. While communication involving federal and local police agencies could not be heard by outsiders, the fire department scanner — widely available over the Internet — provided a running account of some of the behind-the-scenes activities. Firefighters were not in the building when the manhunt was underway.

“We’re looking at enhancing the security of the radios from the fire department,” Quander said at a news conference Wednesday. He added, “When we have events like this and they’re fast-moving, we have to be very careful as to what information we are providing, because individuals who have harmful intent can use information that is freely available to further their purposes. So it puts law enforcement, first responders and the public in a very precarious situation.”

The deputy mayor said the department is “looking at how can we encrypt certain segments of those transmissions, how we can keep certain segments free. So it’s a work in progress. We are trying to work through various issues. So we’re aware of some of the concerns and we’re working toward that.”

Cutting off live chatter at fires and other incidents will certainly anger fire buffs and scanner enthusiasts, and it could also slow the flow of information to the media. Dispatch and on-scene communications involving D.C. police are encrypted.

Edward C. Smith, the president of the firefighters union, said live broadcasts at fire scenes “is a benefit to the public” and gives people a better understanding of the complexities involved in fighting even the most routine of fires.

Smith said the department already has one channel that can be encrypted. “In rare instances it might be appropriate,” smith said. “But I think for general use, the public should be able to listen.”

The labor leader also said that encryption can affect the ability of different agencies to communicate with each other.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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