Foothills County council addressed the issue of encrypted channels on the new provincial-wide radio system through a resolution, after patrol officers expressed concern for their safety.
After hearing a presentation on the concerns from Darlene Roblin, protective services co-ordinator for the Foothills Patrol, at the August 7 meeting, council decided to move forward with a resolution and to engage the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board.
The issue arose after the RCMP K-Division made the switch to the AFRRCS system, with the local detachments adopting the radios at the end of June. With the switch, K-Division opted to encrypt their channels for security.
Reeve Larry Spilak called the situation sad, and said it was certainly important enough for council to react.
“In previous years, prior to them moving to this, we could hear the radio communications of our three detachments, and it’s gone quiet,” said Darlene Roblin.
In order for municipal enforcement to speak to the RCMP, they have two options: call RCMP dispatch and ask them to phone the CPOs; or go through its own dispatch, and have them contact RCMP dispatch to ask them to go to a common event channel.
“It’s not good,” said Roblin. “AFRRCS, the whole purpose of it was to enhance communications, and unfortunately what’s happening is different agencies are creating their own silos.”
Roblin stressed the the communication difficulties are not at a local level, and said the Foothills Patrol has excellent working relationships with the three local RCMP detachments—the problem has come from the provincial level.
Roblin acknowledged the RCMP has to protect its channels from the public being able to scan them, as that was an issue with the old system. However, she said there has to be a better way of dealing with that issue without isolating other agencies, such as security clearance.
Roblin said the Alberta Community Peace Officers has lobbied the Solicitor General’s department for years in anticipation of this change, in addition to meetings with K-Division to express their concerns.
“It’s all fallen on deaf ears, quite frankly,” she said.
Roblin suggested council engage with the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) and the Rural Municipalities Association (RMA) across the province to address the issue, as per the Solicitor General’s departments request that those two organizations bring forward concerns on behalf of employers across the province.
“I do have some concerns from an officer safety perspective, if we get into an urgent situation where we need RCMP resourcing, we no longer can pick the radio up and speak to them directly,” said Roblin.
“This change—for us to be able, in an emergency situation where we need to speak to somebody immediately, it’s not going to work well.”
The RCMP isn’t the only agency that has gone the encryption-route: the AHS also encrypted their channels when it made the switch years ago, which has caused issues for fire departments, said Coun. Susanne Oel.
“What happens now is the fire (departments), in some places, have no communication as well with (the AHS),” she said.
Oel said it boiled down to an emergency management issue, and how emergency command can handle an incident and deal with everyone that may be involved, in addition to officer’s safety.
Roblin said that, from a large-scale emergency management perspective—such as wildfires or floods—AFRRCS works better than the old system, as it has group talk channels set-up that all departments have access to.
The sticking point is the day-to-day use.
Roblin said while they used to be able to scan and hear what was going on or pick up a radio and talk directly to the RCMP, with the new system, getting that information is a more convoluted process.
“We can call 911 like somebody else, or we can go through our dispatch and go to their dispatch,” she said. “The common talk groups are already there, but they’re not being scanned so the officers would have to be told to go to this channel, and our officers would have to be told to go this channel.
“In an emergency situation, it’s certainly not ideal.”
In the instantaneous, fast-acting emergency situations without an incident commander manning the radios and telling the departments what channels to use, the radio silence leaves too much room.
Oel brought up cases of high-speed chases or domestic violence, and said that now CPOs wouldn’t know those situations were happening, and therefore wouldn’t be able to make it known they were in the area or advise their officers not to engage.
Roblin agreed, and used the example of a high-speed chase with a car that was involved in a robbery. Before RCMP switched to AFRRCS, patrol officers could hear that information and steer clear of the area.
“Today, we won’t have any idea,” she said. “We see a car speeding and we could walk blindly into pulling that vehicle over that, normally, we should not be engaging that vehicle, but we now don’t have the information to make that decision.
“I do have concerns that somebody in the province here is going to get hurt as a result of this.”