EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: A 40-Year Veteran of the Telecom Industry and Crisis Communications Profession Offers His Opinions About Analog Versus Digital 2-Way Radios Relative to School Security

Like many school districts, the district I work for is in the process of upgrading its 2-way radio communications system in both an effort to make communications more efficient and to also enhance school safety.  I’ve had a substantial role in that process and admit that while I have learned much, I still have much to learn about communications systems.  I was fortunate to connect with former classmate and current Assistant Emergency Coordinator at Collin County Ares (Texas) Chadwick Stelzl who in turn led me to one of the top crisis communications experts in the nation, Fred Varian.  Fred’s impressive career in telecommunications, security and public safety spans five decades.  I’ve included his fascinating bio at the end of this post.

Fred helped me understand the advantages of digital communications systems from the perspective of a public safety expert.  In addition, he shed light on a number of points I overlooked, or improperly assumed, about digital communications.  The following is my interview with Fred Varian

DAVID:  Is it accurate that anyone with a basic scanner can listen to analog communications and obtain confidential information of the organization?

FRED:  The statement is essentially true, but it is incumbent of the person communicating to remember the mode of communications he/she is using and to not reveal any confidential information. This is called COMSEC or Communications Security. The act of a person listening to communications to gain information is called COMIT Communications Intelligence.

DAVID:  If a digital 2-way radio is lost, it can be “stunned” and shut off remotely as the organization will have the identification number – so that is one advantage of digital radios over analog radios, right?

FRED:  The capability to “STUN” or “KILL” a radio is available on both analog and digital radio systems depending on the radio technology used.

DAVID:  I’ve heard that it would be unlikely that a civilian would be able to crack into the organization’s digital communications as that person would need the same radio the organization uses, the frequencies, and the group and individual identification numbers.  In addition, if it is a digital trunking system, then the person would also have to guess which channel the repeater was going to send the communication to each time someone keyed up.

FRED:  Currently, as of April 2013, there are several scanner type receivers available that can receive both analog and digital signals on conventional, LTR (Logic Trunked Radio, and P25 systems. There are public sources available to program these radios to listen to any radio traffic. Several can be loaded with a national database and with a connected GPS unit will automatically allow the user to listen to services as they travel across the USA. Parameters such as range from position, service types (Law Enforcement, Fire Department, EMS, Hospital, Media, Military, Public Works, Railroad, Schools, Security, Transportation, Utilities, Business, Ham Radio and Aviation to name a few permit a broad or very selective listening capability. 

It is obvious from the above that “guessing the channel and frequency’ are not big issues for someone wanting to listen to someone. It is the way an agency uses their radios that can significantly increase their COMSEC capability.

Using a Law Enforcement agency as an example, both analog and digital radios can be encrypted to varying levels of security. In an ideal situation normal everyday communications would not be encrypted for the main dispatch, the information channel where driver licenses and car registrations are checked or a channel where car to car traffic is handled.

Channels or talkgroups that handle Drug interdiction, serve felony warrants and special situations should be encrypted all the time.

One department I am familiar with is setup in this manner and had on a very short notice (less than 8 hours) to prepare for the Vice President to attend a college base ballgame. Through the use of OTAP (Over The Air Programming) and OTAR (Over The Air Rekeying) Special Event talkgroups were activated in radios assigned to the event and they were all encrypted. This significantly increases COMSEC.

DAVID:  Is there a downside to encrypting radio communications in a school district or local fire, police or EMS?

FRED:  There is a downside to using encryption on all the channels for all traffic. In case of a disaster where mutual aid from other groups is needed, communications interoperability is much more difficult.

DAVID:  How concerned should we be that people with basic scanners can monitor 2-way communications and learn routines and other vital information about schools and potentially use that intelligence in planning an attack?

FRED:  In regards to persons learning agencies methods by listening to their communications, it is just as easy for a group to perform “operational” surveillance. Many responses by police and fire departments have occurred in major cities that were ‘false alarms’ to see how the departments would respond to an event. Unfortunately our media significantly aids in the planning for an illegal event. Watch an illegal significant event unfold on live TV, internet streaming sites and print media and they will provide more on the response methods and subsequent investigation methods to catch the perpetrators than you can get by listening to a radio for a significant timeframe.      

DAVID:  OK – looking at this from a secured communications perspective, what else can you think of that would be rationale to go with a digital system versus analog?  Or – what are some liabilities of staying with an analog system relative to security of the communications? 

FRED:  Using text and graphics communications terminals in vehicles have provided a significant communications security improvement for many agencies. Digital text and graphics communications can significantly be encrypted full time. There are currently no radio scanners or add-on’s that can added to a radio to permit this form of communications to be monitored by unauthorized users. 

ABOUT FRED VARIAN  Fred Varian has since 2007 been a member of the Technical Support team of ICOM America supporting dealers, government clients and end-users technical issues for ICOM radio products.  Prior to ICOM Fred worked for 36 years in the telecommunications industry starting as a switching technician maintaining central office equipment to managing the Network Operations Center monitoring DSL and Internet services across 13 states. Fred also managed the Crisis Communications team and co-chaired the NSEP National Security Emergency Preparedness functions.  Fred has been able to combine his experience in the telecommunications industry and his volunteer experience as an active amateur radio operator since 1964 and his 20 years as a firefighter/EMS first responder to provide unique insight into communications operations, security and intelligence.  Fred was certified as a business continuity planner at the national level. He helped develop and assisted on the development of numerous plans, but most enjoyed exercising disaster recovery plans in an environment that was a realistic and fun learning experience for everyone.  Fred has been involved in disaster response to numerous incidents ranging from the New York Telephone Second Ave Fire in NYC 1975, Delta 191 air crash, Oklahoma City bombing, Northridge earthquake  and more hurricanes and tornadoes than he cares to remember.  His support of other more pleasant, but not necessarily less stressful events, has been for presidential visits (Nixon thru Clinton), major political conventions, Superbowl XLV and the Marine Corp Marathon.