Victoria's new radio scanner system will shut out listeners

April 18, 2010 at 11 p.m.
Updated April 17, 2010 at 11:18 p.m.

Victoria's new city-county radio system will create silence for all scanner listeners.

For the past two months, the police department has been working to install its new digital radio system, Digital Motorola 800.

Police Chief Bruce Ure said he anticipates the $6.1 million system to go live in June.

"We've been contemplating this decision for several years because of the high cost," Ure said. "We had to move more quickly out of absolute necessity."

Ure said the sense of urgency was created by the Federal Communications Commission's mandate that all analog radio systems, such as the one currently used by the city-county emergency network, be replaced with digital systems.

Ure, who described the current system, as the "primary radio system for the entire county" is owned by the city of Victoria. However, it has several subscribers, including the sheriff's department, local hospitals and the fire department.

One aspect of the new system that has both positive and negative effects is the encryption feature.

"Too often during a narcotics raid or any type of search, we often find scanners tuned into our frequency," Ure said. "We have also found criminals driving around with scanners in their cars.

"To know where police resources are tied up is an incredible advantage to a criminal."

Victoria resident Miranda Partida knows firsthand how criminals are using scanners.

"Some neighbors across the street, known criminals, had a scanner, and when we would call the cops on them for disturbing the peace after 10 p.m., they would hear it on the scanner and quickly deplete the party," 26-year-old Partida said.

Even if the police department had not opted to add the encryption feature, Ure said, non-subscribers would not be able to tune in because of the system's advanced technology.

"A scanner does not exist to listen to this frequency," Ure said. "Technology has not caught up yet."

Ure said the police department paid extra for the encryption feature as a preventive measure.

"We don't want to take the chance that three years from now someone will build a scanner that can listen in to our frequency."

He wanted to make it clear that the police department's purchase of the encryption feature was not an attempt to keep Victoria residents out of the information loop.

"It's not a secret thing," he said. "We're certainly not intentionally trying to keep the public from knowing what we're doing. It's quite the opposite. We're trying to protect both the public and law enforcement by encrypting the new system."

Partida said she was not bothered by not having access to these frequencies.

"I used to do rounds at the fire department and at the hospital when doing EMS training two years ago, and I feel there are things mentioned and said that only need to be heard by the ER staff and the emergency responders, and not for regular citizens being nosey," Partida said.

Randy Mahoney, 57, of Victoria expressed similar sentiments.

"Scanners can be kind of voyeuristic," he said. "I'm sure others might disagree, but unless someone has a job that could be impacted by emergency events, I can't really see any justification for scanner traffic to be public."

Chris Cobler, Victoria Advocate editor, said he hoped the media could work out an arrangement to continue to hear emergency scanner traffic. Without that ability, the public might not know about fires, shootings, school lockdowns, environmental hazards and other emergencies.

"We already don't hear police conversations about sensitive matters," Cobler said. "All we want to do on the public's behalf is stay informed of emergency situations in real time."

Although Ure said the deadline for making the switch is about three years away, he said, the department's outdated system increased the sense of urgency to get a new system in place now.

"Clearly, we can't wait three years because if both controllers go down, then we won't have a radio system."

The current system, which went live in 2000 and cost $4.5 million, is comprised of two controllers - a primary one and a secondary one for backup.

"The controllers are old and antiquated enough that they don't make those parts anymore," Ure said.

Ure said the department was due for a new system, saying the current one had survived its life expectancy, which is 10 to 15 years.

He hopes the new system will also last as long time.

Some perks of the new system include global positioning system installed in each of the radios and the capability of statewide communication.

Fire Chief Vance Riley, one of the radio system's subscribers, is excited for the upcoming changes.

"Radio communication for us is an extremely critical component for our effectiveness on an emergency scene. It's a welcome improvement to our radio system," Riley said.

Riley also said the expanded coverage would benefit his department.

"We are in a hurricane-prone area. Many agencies will come into our area from other parts of Texas, and this will enable us to better communicate with them."



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