Switch to digital threatens to kill the buzz of the newsroom scanner

Although the digital age has often meant unprecedented improvements inaccess to information, new digital communications devices in use by policeand emergency departments may mean just the opposite for news reporters.

Many cities are switching to the digital devices to ensure security,but with increased security comes restricted access for the media and thepublic because traditional radio scanners no longer work. Some emergencydepartments will not allow access to the new systems at all.

When the police go digital, often only the media can follow, and ata high price. Because there is currently no way to monitor digital communicationsmade with these new devices, news outlets must, at least for now, enterinto agreements with local authorities to use the same equipment the agenciesdo.

The University of Florida’s student newspaper, the Independent FloridaAlligator, is now spending $1,572 per year to lease a Trunked RadioSystem from Gainesville Regional Utilities to listen to what had previouslybeen available on a scanner with a one-time cost of roughly $150.

The TRS devices in Gainesville are digital, and the emergency agencycommunications broadcast on them cannot be monitored with a traditionalradio scanner. The only way to access the broadcasts is to use a TRS, butthe radio must be programmed with the right access software for it to pickup the correct transmission.

The Radio Management Board in Gainesville, which oversees the new communicationssystem for all emergency departments in the area, is unwilling to giveanyone but the media access to the digital radios, according to Trey Csar,managing editor of the Alligator.

At first, the board was unwilling to allow any media access to the system.When it first announced it would begin using TRS in November, the boardvoted 5-1 to deny access to the media but later came to an agreement withlocal news organizations. Gainesville Regional Utilities leases the radiosfrom Motorola on an annual basis and charges the news outlets a monthlyrental fee.

“Given this agreement, news media outlets are the only ones that areallowed to lease these radios,” Csar said.

Brad Barber, who is directing the upgrade to TRS for Gainesville RegionalUtilities, said the agreement is in line with Florida law, which restrictsradio access to the news media, amateur radio operators, alarm system contractorsand neighborhood crime watch groups. He also said what constitutes thenews media is defined by the local sheriff’s office.

Only “designated media representatives [as defined by the] Alachua Countysheriff’s office,” may arrange to either lease a radio from GainesvilleRegional Utilities or buy one and pay a user fee for access, Barber said.

Police in Clermont County, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, have also switchedto encrypted radio communication devices that prevent access with traditionalscanners. The police have said they will allow media to access the communicationsbut not the public. The Cincinnati chapter of the Society of ProfessionalJournalists is openly protesting the decision, saying that the public shouldalso be allowed access and that the switch raises serious questions forsmall media outlets, including the student press.

“We don’t know yet how severe this problem will be,” said Tim Bonfield,president of the Cincinnati SPJ. “But once police can encrypt dispatchedcommunications, it won’t be good news for student newspapers or any otherkind of newspapers.”

Another question the new technology has raised is whether the mediawill be able to access the same transmissions it could with a traditionalscanner.

According to Barber, the Alligator and other media outlets thatchoose to lease a radio should be able to access essentially the same broadcaststhey could before the switch.

Talkgroups, or channels, that are off-limits are those that “are reservedstrictly for criminal investigations or those types of events,” Barbersaid. “But that’s nothing new — that’s been standard policy here for along time. In the past, on older systems, those were encrypted, so youwouldn’t have had access to those anyway.”

Csar said it is not yet clear whether the police will use the new technologyto hide information from the media. The Alligator has only usedthe radio for a few months, and he said he is unaware of whether thereare any set guidelines for what the police can and cannot put on privatefrequencies.

“We haven’t run into a problem specifically,” Csar said. “We get mostof [what we got before].” But, he added, “no one is monitoring those bandsto make sure what they are transmitting needs to be transmitted over thosebands.”

The emergency agencies decide which talkgroups will be accessible tothe media. If a media outlet wanted access to a talkgroup not already available,the request would be weighed by each individual agency, according to Barber.

Citizens in Gainesville cannot access any of the talkgroups, however,because they cannot use the TRS — even if they are willing to pay the$131 per month to rent the systems.

In Ohio, it is still unclear what guidelines the police will use.

“We don’t know what rules there will be for the police taking away access,”Bonfield said. “We have no way of predicting how cooperative individualpolice departments will be with individual media outlets, and we don’tknow whether student journalists or student publications will get the sametreatment as the professional media will get.”

The reasons behind the switch to digital in Florida, according to EdRegan, strategic planning director for Gainesville Regional Utilities,are the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to change the frequenciesavailable to emergency agencies and the fact that the equipment in useneeded to be replaced anyway.

The public may have access eventually, though, Regan said.

“We know that consumer-grade digital trunking scanners are being developed,”he said. “But it’s no longer a question of going out and buying a $100scanner.”

Barber said he has not heard any complaints about lack of access.

“The only complaint I’ve heard, of course, is the cost, but we don’treally have any control over that — we’re just passing through whateverMotorola charges us to users,” he said.

Cindy Swirko, a reporter on the law enforcement beat for The GainesvilleSun, said there are some communications that are no longer accessible.

“Some of the communications between ambulances you can’t get anymore,”she said. “They put them on separate channels for medical privacy reasons.”

Csar said there is a broader issue at play in this case.

“I think a bigger question is going to come up-what defines news media?”he said. “They’ve really created a privileged class of the public. Themedia is no less the public than John Doe down the street.”