Radio Encryption Does Not Outweigh Interoperability

February 18th, 2015 by Vernon Herron

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Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser last week reversed the decision by the City’s previous administration to encrypt radio communications in the Metropolitan Fire Department. The change in policy comes on the heels of a deadly smoke incident aboard a Metro Train that took the life of one passenger and left numerous others treated at local hospitals as a result of smoke inhalation. During the response stage of this event, officials determined communications were hampered, which may have delayed their response.

I first addressed the pitfalls of public safety radio encryption in 2011 – DC Police Decision Jeopardizes Interoperability. At the time, DC officials decided to encrypt police radios, and many public safety officials in the National Capital Region (NCR) expressed their concerns that encryption would impede the region’s ability to communicate seamlessly and could stifle coordination efforts which were a top priority in the NCR after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

As a result of the September 11th attacks, officials in the NCR spent millions of dollars to upgrade their radios and enhance communications within the region which would subsequently lead to enhanced situational awareness and faster response times in the event of an emergency. The original reason given by the District to encrypt radios was based on the notion that police communications were private and the media had no right to monitor police calls. The District’s decision to encrypt Police radios hampered interoperability with outlying counties and subsequently exposed a vulnerability that had previously been mitigated.

Even if fire radio encryption had no impact on the deadly metro incident, Mayor Bowser should be commended for re-establishing response capabilities for firefighters within the region. In fact, given the recent terrorist events that have occurred around the world, public safety officials in the NCR should use this opportunity to conduct a regional exercise that test the full capabilities of interoperability within the region and test their response to an event in the transit system that serves the entire region. First responders and public safety officials need to be assured that communications within the tunnels are adequate. If gaps exist, they should be identified before another event occurs.

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