Public access to Honolulu police and fire scanners to end

A system overhaul will encrypt the frequencies used by nine city departments, preventing monitoring of the transmissions


Peter Boylan
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — The public's long-standing access to routine radio communications by Honolulu police and firefighters is coming to an end as the city nears completion of a $15 million system overhaul that will encrypt the frequencies used by nine city departments, preventing objective monitoring of the transmissions.

The conversion from an analog system to a P25 Motorola digital system will allow the departments to talk to each other on a single channel and is part of a national move away from analog radio systems by county, state and federal agencies. The move is intended to make operations quicker and more efficient by providing first responders with more bandwidth.

For decades reporters have been able to listen to police and fire department scanners to be alerted to major accidents, fires or crimes in progress and alert the public.
For decades reporters have been able to listen to police and fire department scanners to be alerted to major accidents, fires or crimes in progress and alert the public.

For decades reporters have been able to listen to police and fire department scanners to be alerted to major accidents, fires or crimes in progress and alert the public. In a 1997 article the Society of Professional Journalists said police and fire scanners are "about as necessary in a newsroom as is the pen and notebook."

Banning public access to scanners raises First Amendment concerns and questions about why the public is prevented from listening to taxpayer-funded radio systems transmitting unfiltered information about events in their communities. When the conversion is complete, any information about what units and personnel are dispatched where, when and for what will be released at the discretion of the individual department's leadership team.

"Just another example of the lack of transparency. I can understand the upgrade, but to have a system which shuts out the public without a companion system that does not is just more proof that HPD ( Honolulu Police Department ) and other emergency responders just don't appreciate the public's right to know what is going on in their community, " said Jeffrey S. Portnoy, an attorney at Cades Schutte who represents the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in First Amendment proceedings.

The Federal Communications Commission did not respond to emailed questions or phone calls requesting comment on the nationwide trend and how Honolulu's radio encryption balances with the public's right to listen in.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi supports the upgrade and encryption, saying it will help first responders save lives and respond in an efficient, coordinated manner.

"The P25 Motorola system provides first responder users with more bandwidth, which equates to a more efficient use of the radio system. The shift will be able to further protect members of our community—whether it be through preventing their personal and private medical information from being transmitted over the airways to allowing first responders to hear uninterrupted transmissions in areas dense with concrete buildings, " said Brandi Higa, spokeswoman for the mayor. "We do acknowledge that it is a big change, because in years past, store bought scanners could patch into just about everything communicated to and from EMS, fire and police. But this change is about protecting our community and improving our collective response to emergencies in the City and County of Honolulu."

In addition to HPD and the Honolulu Fire Department, Ocean Safety, Emergency Medical Services, Department of Information Technology, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, Department of Facilities Maintenance, Environmental Services and the Department of Parks and Recreation will be on the same, encrypted system.

For more than 40 years, anyone with knowledge of radio frequencies and the inventory at Radio Shack was able to listen in as dispatchers sent firefighters, police officers and emergency medical services personnel to incidents requiring their services. The internet brought applications like Broadcastify that allow browsers to listen in on scanner chatter anywhere the frequency is available to the public.

Most newsrooms in America are outfitted with scanners tuned to first-responder radio traffic.

But starting around 2011, citing the need to keep criminals from listening in and to adhere with U.S. Department of Justice mandates to protect witness, victim and suspect information, hundreds of police departments and first responders around the country started encrypting their frequencies. The police departments in Washington, D.C.; Denver ; Baltimore ; Las Vegas ; Palo Alto, Calif.; Lancaster County, Pa.; Sioux City, Iowa ; and elsewhere do not make their communications public.

State lawmakers have tried in places like California and Colorado to make the encrypted communications public, but those efforts failed after significant pushback by law enforcement and local governments.

Denver offers decryption licenses at a cost of $4, 000 plus additional insurance purchases, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Honolulu Fire Department, city Emergency Medical Services and police brought the P25 Motorola system online and are using a patch to the old system while the conversion is completed.

No timetable for the loss of public access to the radio transmissions has been set, but access to the communications is expected to happen by the end of 2021, according to police and city officials.

Honolulu police interim Chief Rade K. Vanic told reporters Friday that "at some point " HPD radio communications will not be available, but the department is working on a system, maybe a database, where the public and press will find the information shared between police dispatchers and officers responding to calls for services.

"That's something we are still working out, " said Vanic. "We want to have good relations with the media, and we understand the need to know information so you can hopefully get the information out, follow up and ask us the questions that need to be asked. Hopefully, we can answer those questions. I understand that is super important."

HPD already has a tactical, nonpublic radio channel for emergency management.

HFD will also remove its radio transmissions from the public spectrum once all of its engines are outfitted with the new system, according to Louise Kim McCoy, HFD information specialist. HFD uses a text message alert system maintained by the FCC to distribute dispatch calls to the public.

"The city decided as a group to go with the encrypted P25 for the safety of first responders, for the privacy of communications and for the privacy of the citizens who we are responding to in a variety of fire or rescue calls, " said Kim McCoy. "The P25 Motorola system is encrypted and provides more security to first-responder agencies ; it provides improved geographical coverage and building penetration, allowing HFD personnel to hear uninterrupted transmissions when responding to areas dense with concrete buildings."

EMS is the only city department covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which mandates the protection of patient information.

Dr. James Ireland, director of the city Department of Emergency Services, said the agency has received no complaints from the public about access to its radio communications.

"Honolulu EMS transmits protected patient information. This private medical information is transmitted between EMS dispatchers to paramedics and EMTs (emergency medical technicians ) in the field, and from the paramedics and EMTs to the emergency department doctors and nurses. We have not, in recent years, or since the conversion, received any complaints from the public regarding access to our radio transmissions. Honolulu EMS and Ocean Safety do provide the media and the public with reports for incidents where inquiries were made and for those incidents when the media did not inquire but the public's best interest was considered. We are always going to be responsive to requests for incident information ; however, it is imperative patient privacy is protected."

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