Havre Daily News
In the next year or two, scannerland - what some call the world of radio eavesdropping - may become a ghost town.
A plan for a statewide digital radio network will allow local agencies to choose whether the public can hear their communications. If those agencies use encryption, even new digital scanners will be useless.
Hill County is part of the Northern Tier Interoperability Project, one of 11 regions statewide that are organizing a shared digital network. Each region is in the process of building a communication system for its members and then linking those across the state.
"All they'll hear is a white noise, hissing sound," state project coordinator Ron Warren said of the old analog scanners' inability to pick up higher frequency digital communications. Digital scanners can be purchased, but cost about $500, he added.
Hill County Undersheriff Don Brostrom said it will be another year or two before the Northern Tier Interoperability Project is online, and even then some communications will still use analog frequencies.
Law enforcement will go digital first, he said. Rural fire and other services will come online next. The system is designed to allow for a staggered start. In the case of rural fire, firefighters who want to speak on the digital network will be able to radio a dispatcher and then be patched in, Brostrom said.
The way coordinators describe it, public access to police communications will vary from place to place. According to Warren, some agencies will continue to use analog frequencies for all local communications.
Locally, law enforcement officials favor going fully digital and encrypting many communications.
Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said he wants all information encrypted. Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel said he might keep a general channel with day-to-day operations available, but any other communications would be encrypted.
"I would review the situation and more than likely go with encrypted," Szudera said.
He said he will consider the impact of losing help from scannerheads - residents of scannerland - who sometimes call in with information on a case. But he said there's also a down side to having communications that can be heard by the public.
"One of my main concerns ... is the safety and welfare of the deputies," Szudera said. "Scannerland finds out deputies are coming and the perpetrators flee or get ready and offer resistance."
As to the public's right to know, "That's the question for legal," he said. "Safety and well-being of the deputies, security and safe operation, that's paramount to me."
The news is not good for local scannerheads.
It's an anonymous, but large and varied group. Just before a bingo game at the North Central Senior Center this week, eight women sat at a card table. Half of them said they own or listen to scanners. Two said they listen frequently. All who listen said they want to know what is going on, particularly if they hear sirens in their neighborhood.
In a downtown parking lot later in the same day, two 19-year-old men leaned on their vehicles talking, smoking cigarettes, and listening to their scanners.
"That kinda sucks," one man, Ryan Hurd, said when he learned that his scanner might have a short lifespan.
"I've been using it to keep out of trouble," Hurd said.
He uses it for a lot of reasons. Hurd is a volunteer firefighter for a rural fire district and listens for fires. He works for a landscape company and can tune it to a channel to hear where he's working the next day. But most nights, he said, the scanner helps him stay ahead of police.
"If I hear my car plate number, I usually go to a different area, or if I'm in a house that comes up, I usually bolt," Hurd said.
Hurd said he keeps the scanner on when he and his friends go to the mountains for a party.
"By the time the cops get there, we're gone," he said.
That was true until a party a short time ago when police showed up unannounced. Hurd said he received a minor in possession of alcohol charge.
While Hurd is glad to keep out of trouble when he can, he understands why police prefer an encrypted system.
"That's useful for them," he said. He doesn't think the public has a right to hear law enforcement, though he said other activities like ambulance and fire should be on publically accessible channels.
Several Havre residents say they listen to scanners to keep track of their rental properties.
Among those, few objected to the loss of the pastime.
Jeanne Lee was one who thought it was not such a bad thing for police to keep some information secret.
"To tell the truth, I don't think we should because how are they going to do their business if we know what they're doing. But I have to admit I'm curious to know what they're doing," Lee said.
Lee's curiosity has allowed her to help out several times in the past few years, she said.
In one case, Lee heard about a missing boy. She recalled seeing him that day in a rental property she owns behind her own house. Lee said she called the police to tell them she knew where the boy was.
In another occasion, a car crashed into a stop sign just in front of Lee's house. It was a car she heard the police searching for on the radio.
"I told them, 'The car you are looking for was right here,'" Lee said.
Lee said she doesn't object to not getting confidential information, but some things should be available for the public to listen to.
"I think we need to know kind of what's going on in our town," she said.