Westmoreland police dispatches go silent in 4 communities with test of encryption program
Police radio dispatches in the northern portion of Westmoreland County went silent Thursday as 911 officials tested a new encryption program that could eventually keep all law enforcement transmissions private.
So far, the pilot program affects police in only Lower Burrell, New Kensington, Arnold and Upper Burrell.
“It’s up to the police departments. We’re not doing this at all,” said Bud Mertz, director of the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety.
Mertz said the chiefs from all four departments, which make up District 9 of the county’s 911 dispatch system, asked for their radio transmissions to be encrypted, meaning they will not be heard on popular scanner devices.
The northern police chiefs said encryption is needed to ensure the safety of police officers.
“The top deal is officer safety,” said Arnold police Chief Willie Weber. “My personnel is more important to me than anything out in scanner land.”
The county’s 911 emergency dispatch system has had encryption capabilities but no requests to use them — until now.
Officials said radios used by police need special software to unscramble the transmissions.
Tests of the encryption program were conducted from 7 a.m. Thursday to 7 a.m. Friday. No problems were reported.
Mertz said there is no start date for the encryption for the northern police departments to become permanent.
And there are no plans to expand encryption to other areas of the county.
Mertz said the county will not remove scanner chatter from public airwaves unless all chiefs from any district agree to the program.
“I think some of the other chiefs are looking at it, but I’ve had no formal requests that have been made,” Mertz said.
Encryption of police transmissions has been going on in Greensburg for years, Chief Walter Lyons said.
The city, which does not dispatch through the county’s 911 system, has one radio frequency that can be heard on public scanners. A second frequency is encrypted.
Police switch back and forth from the public to the private channel, Lyons said.
“There may be situations or information that dispatch needs to give out on the radio that we don’t want public. It’s about officer safety,” Lyons said. “If we’re on a stakeout, we wouldn’t want that information to get out.”
Concerns about transparency have been raised.
“We need to explore public access to the crime incident information, whether by a Nixle alert, or Twitter or some other option,” New Kensington police Chief Tom Klawinski said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or [email protected]. Mary Ann Thomas contributed to this report.