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Why the Forsyth County fire department has decided to encrypt its radios, and why that concerns First Amendment expert
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For years, local residents have had the ability to monitor fire and law enforcement traffic on radio scanners and, more recently, scanner apps for smartphones.

Frequent listeners might have noticed a change in recent months: Though traffic is still available from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, transmissions from the Forsyth County Fire Department are no longer accessible, instead going through encrypted channels after recent upgrades to the county’s E-911 radio system.

“I think we’re trying to have a balanced approach to this while still having the capabilities of encrypted channels but dealing with it different between the medical calls, the suppression calls and the law enforcement calls,” said County Manager Eric Johnson.

Since law enforcement is under Sheriff Ron Freeman and fire is a county department, the two are not required to both either encrypt or not encrypt.

Karen Shields, Forsyth County’s director of communications, said the county’s previous radios “were reaching a point in time where they would not be repairable” and the upgraded system has several new capabilities, including capabilities for more radios to use the system, GPS and Wi-Fi.

She said the upgrades had been discussed by the county dating back to at least 2016.

Johnson, who was hired in 2017, said for the fire department, a major concern is medical information getting out to those listening to the radios.

“In the case of the fire department, it’s a different nature of calls,” he said. “Most of our calls are not structure fires. Most of our calls are medical emergencies.”

For those medical calls, Johnson said there is concern from county officials about how pertinent that information is and whether sensitive information might get out.

“I respect the fact that since most of our calls are medical calls, I think that there is a lot of logic in those being encrypted so that we’re not inadvertently on an open channel allowing people to kind of monitor medical calls,” Johnson said.

However, some feel the encryption of the radios can impede the public’s ability to get information.

Richard T. Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said there was “no argument” that some radio traffic needed to be encrypted and saw “no rational reason for fire or public health services to be encrypted.”

“I think that it is hard to make an argument that for the public safety, the fire department’s radio transmissions need to be encrypted,” Griffiths said. “I think it’s much harder to make that argument than, say, for law enforcement to have their private channels for investigations. The public needs to understand what is happening in their community, and often in real time.”

Griffiths – a retired journalist who worked for more than 25 years with CNN, including serving as vice president and senior editorial director for seven years before retiring – said he knew the importance of radios for news gathering from his time as an assignment editor.

“As someone who at one time or another has worked as an assignment editor and understood fully the value of knowing what’s going on in the community through what’s on the radio traffic, not only police scanners but the fire department and ambulance traffic,” he said. “A big part of what’s happening in the community is understood from that radio traffic. Particularly for journalists, it’s a vital way of being able to track down major events when they’re happening.”

In the case of the medical calls, Griffiths said some information about patients is spread on the radios but referred to them as “a vague account of a medical condition.”

“They’re not putting the name and Social Security number out there. They’re going to say, ‘He’s a 6-year-old white male who is suffering chest pains,’” Griffiths said.

Johnson said he had personally listened to fire traffic on scanners and was concerned about “some of the information that is available to someone who may be monitoring an open channel in terms of the nature of the medical emergency we are responding to.”

Another concern, he said, with unencrypted radios he has heard of are incidents with “one or more companies in the business of remediation services after a fire” using open channels to get on the scene before responders can put the fire out.

“I don’t really feel an obligation to serve the community by facilitating someone hitting a homeowner up to deal with fire, smoke and water damage when we’re still putting their house out,” he said.

Similarly, Johnson said media and reporters monitoring the transmissions have been an issue while responding to calls.

“We’ve had a situation where the media has contacted us about a fire we’re responding to before our company actually left the station,” Johnson said. “At that point, it’s intruding into an operational issue. We certainly want people to know what’s going on in their community, but we are getting a call from the media before we even have eyes on the scene and equipment on the scene.

“That is not our focus, and that is not, in my mind, serving the community the best. At that point, I want fire management dealing with the dispatch and getting the right resources on the scene, not responding to any member of the media.”

Griffiths said that while monitoring radio traffic through scanners has been possible for decades, encryption had largely come along in recent years with technological advances.

“As people get new systems and new technologies, it gets very easy to click the encrypt box and activate the technology,” he said. “Twenty years ago, encryption was a hard thing to do. Now, it’s easier to do and encryption needs to be put into place with thought and care and there needs to be good reasons for it.”

Though the use of encrypted radios is growing across the country, Griffiths said the Georgia First Amendment Foundation had “not had a lot of complaints about this issue.”

To combat encryption, he said some news services have access keys to the radios or purchase equipment.

Johnson said that could be a slippery slope to allowing other businesses to obtain them since news and media sites are for-profit businesses.

“If I happen to run a home restoration service, I’m going to come in and deal with the smoke damage and the water damage and the aftermath of the fire, why do I not have equal access as a business owner to have a several-thousand-dollar radio, as well?” he said.

“You could offer to buy the radio, but I don’t know that I feel the need to facilitate someone who can after-the-fact come and contact that homeowner and say, ‘Look, we’re going to help you restore your house to the pristine condition it was in before the fire,’ but I don’t know that I really feel that the county needs to facilitate it on the front-end.”

To help get information out, the county is planning a more robust social media presence.

“We can help, through social media, kind of share what is going on,” Johnson said. “We can give a heads up to the media by having one or more of our public information officers understand the interest and the real-time interest in what is going on.”

Griffiths said social media was valuable for getting information out to the public but said his issue was that left the “judgment” of what information to put out in the hands of county officials.

“Social media is fine for them to use as an additional tool; it’s a terrific tool, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for serious reporting and being able to understand what is going on when the understanding of what is important differs from that of the public official,” Griffiths said.

Johnson noted that the county policy is new and could potentially be revised in the future.

“We can reevaluate over time,” he said. “We have high-level technology and the challenge is kind of the balance between the public’s right to know and the right of us to protect our employees as they’re doing their job and the public that we serve in terms of the information that general public gets about why someone was dispatched to my address for a medical emergency.”