A couple of weeks ago, I pulled over so a firetruck and an ambulance could go by. Soon I pulled over for a couple of more. And then more. And more.

It didn’t take long to see that they were gathering at Stephens Memorial Hospital.

When I got home, I said, “There’s something big going on at the hospital. A fire, maybe. Or a bomb threat.”

We scoured the Internet, but couldn’t find anything. A couple of hours later, there were still no reports.

On a website that streams emergency service radio communications, I found out what was happening. Eavesdropping on fire and rescue radios, I learned that there was smoke in the hospital and that emergency services were on hand to evacuate patients.

A couple of days later, I told a friend about the situation and said, “I’m thinking about buying a police scanner.”

“Don’t waste your money,” he said. “Soon all emergency radios are going to be encrypted and police scanners will be useless.”

I’m not from Missouri, but spent enough time in the Show-Me State for that attitude to rub off.  Rather than take my friend’s word for it, I researched the topic of emergency services encrypting their radios. Here’s what I learned.

There is nothing in FCC regulations or Maine law to prevent police and other agencies from encrypting their radio communications.

The process is expensive.

A dozen or so major cities in the U.S. have encrypted police radios.

In Maine, both Lewiston and Auburn recently encrypted their police radios, a project that cost around 4.5 million dollars.

As time goes on, more and more police forces, large and small, will encrypt.

Fire and ambulance radios will probably not be encrypted. Home scanners will still be able to listen to them.

That takes care of the what, now let’s look at the why. Arguments in favor of encryption can be boiled down to two issues: safety and privacy.

We have all seen movies and TV shows in which bad guys used police scanners to listen in and outwit law enforcement. It has happened in real life, too. But there are issues that extend beyond criminals eluding the law.

There’s the safety of the officers responding to a dangerous situation.

And there are hazards caused by people showing up to see what’s going on. Suddenly an officer, already in a personally dangerous situation, has the safety of a crowd of gawkers to worry about.

And then there’s the privacy issue. Most people don’t want their name, address, Social Security number, or driver’s license number to be heard on an open police broadcast, be it as a victim, suspect, or witness.

Arguments against encryption boil down to a right to know.

I’m in favor of police radios being encrypted, but not those of fire and other emergency services.

The issue is a hot one. If it is something you care about, don’t depend on my research or opinion. Pretend you are from Missouri and find out for yourself.

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