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Decrypting O.C. firefighter radios so the public can listen is taking longer than expected

Fire truck
In June, Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy estimated that decrypting their radios would take 60 days, but it’s been over 90 days.
(File Photo)

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department is behind schedule in decrypting radios used by county firefighters so journalists and the general public can hear currently private transmissions.

A department spokesman could not provide an estimated timeline to complete the work.

In June, Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy reversed a decision to block the public from listening to operational channels, anticipating the task would take 60 days.

The Orange County Fire Authority has reversed its decision to encrypt its radio and dispatch communications that was initiated Monday.
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The statement temporarily placated reporters, photographers and others who monitor public safety scanners; they say radio encryption unnecessarily prevents the public from learning about emergency responses.

Orange County sheriff’s Sgt. Joses Walehwa said the process to encrypt firefighters’ radios — as part of a system upgrade meant to improve public safety agencies’ ability to communicate with each other — took more than a year and included input from Orange County fire chiefs.

“Our focus is to complete the changeover from encryption to non-encryption without impacting public safety,” he said.

The sheriff’s Orange County Communications Division oversees emergency radio traffic on the 800 MHz Countywide Coordinated Communications System, and its employees are tasked with decrypting firefighters’ radios.

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Fennessy raises the decryption matter at every opportunity with the Sheriff’s Department, according to OCFA Capt. Paul Holaday.

“All encryption has done is give us a bunch of headaches,” Holaday said.

Firefighters will still have the ability, on a case-by-case basis, to switch to encrypted channels to securely communicate with police and sheriff’s deputies during, say, a SWAT operation, bomb threat or other sensitive situation, OCFA spokeswoman Colleen Windsor said.

The Orange County Fire Chiefs Assn. made the decision to encrypt radios several years ago, before many of the current fire chiefs were hired, Windsor said.

OCFA budgeted $7.54 million in fiscal 2016-17 to purchase and install 1,555 portable, mobile and base station radios.

The agency budgeted another $3.53 million in fiscal 2018-19 to update 18 dispatch consoles in its Emergency Command Center. In June, the Fire Authority finished installing the last of the new encrypted radios.

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On Tuesday, Fennessy tweeted that the public can listen to the agency’s tactical radio channels through the digital radio service Broadcastify. Dispatch communications were made available through the same system in August.

David Toussaint, a retired firefighter and Riverside-based freelance photographer, said the radios should never have been encrypted.

He argued Broadcastify channels remain problematic for photojournalists who listen to radio communications from their cars.

Toussaint was one of many Southern California scanner listeners who took to Twitter in June to complain.

“Especially if you’re out in the field, you need it on your scanner, not on an iPad app,” he said. “We’re not going to settle for that.”

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Adrian Pineda, a Fullerton-based videographer with OC Hawk News, said the decision to decrypt firefighters’ communications has had a detrimental impact on his ability to quickly reach crime scenes and crashes and get video to television stations.

“I’m not going to open 10 different web pages to listen to all these different tactical channels,” he said. “With the scanner, I don’t have to use my internet and pay for that internet. I’m not going to be holding my phone in my ear when I’m trying to film.”

Pineda would like Sheriff Don Barnes and Fennessy to meet with him and other freelance journalists to figure out a solution.

“Help us out so we can help you out,” Pineda said.

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