Discussion continues on communication system

Published 10:30 am Thursday, October 17, 2019

Two months following the approval of a 2.8-million-dollar communication system that will help both EMS, police and the school system better communicate, the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors (BOS) are still considering options.

In September the (BOS) voted to remove advance encryption and do away with providing radios to state police troopers working the area.

Currently, Sheriff Thomas Jones provides state police troopers working the county handheld radios to communicate with dispatchers more efficiently.

Supervisor Royal Freeman, who represents the Bacon/Saxe District and is employed by the sheriff’s department, did not agree with the removals and cast a no vote.

During his administrator’s report to the BOS at its October meeting County Administrator Daniel Witt told members that during a kick-off meeting the day prior with representatives from the school system, fire, EMS, and sheriff’s department there was discussion about radios for state police.
“There was a significant amount of discussion yesterday about providing radios to the state police and to the game  department, and realizing that the concern was that this wasn’t something that the state police is knocking on our door asking for, this was something that our sheriff’s department said we need this to provide safety and to provide backup.”

Witt says that it is his understanding that there would be four radios for the state police and two for the game commission. “The radios are $2,500 each, so that would be $15,000 total,” said Witt. “But I also asked the consultant can we purchase used radios that will function for doing that for the state police and that answer was yes. So that was just an option that I asked about — trying to reduce that.”

County Seat Supervisor Gary Walker addressed not waiting too long to decide, saying if the BOS was going to provide the radios, he felt that it needed to be at the best price.

Witt replied, “When you started out last month, you said let’s allow the new sheriff to decide whether the AES (Advanced Encryption System) is needed … you said we don’t need that level of FBI, federal government layer of encryption.” Witt further commented. “If the new sheriff comes in and says, you know, we need it; he needs to justify it first of all and convince four of the seven of you that that’s necessary.”

According to Witt, the cost currently is about $270 to have the AES on the radios. “If we wait and do it after they are ordered, they come in at $650. So that’s the difference in cost to do it aftermarket versus having it installed at the factory.”

The county is looking at purchasing a total of 74 radios.

According to Witt, the radios that are currently being used by the sheriff’s department has AES. The advance encryption is higher-level encryption, typically used by large urban police departments, FBI and CIA.

Witt also said that the radios will come with high-level factory encryption.

“Our consultant does not think this is a necessity for Charlotte County,” said Witt. “Also, the new system is a P-25 system approved by the FCC and endorsed by every public safety professional organization. It has a higher level of interoperability between local, state and federal agencies and has a high level of encryption built into it.”

The removal of the AES is a saving of $21,000, but it is something that Sheriff Thomas Jones has concerns over.

In the Oct. 2 edition of The Charlotte Gazette, Sheriff Jones stated, “With no encryption, anyone with a scanner can hear everything that we are saying,” said Sheriff Jones. “The very home you are getting ready to raid for drugs may be sitting there listening to it on the scanner.” Sheriff Jones also said he was concerned with citizens hearing Social Security numbers and other private information that is communicated between his officers.

During the board discussion, Cullen/ Red House Supervisor Crystal Shepherd said that she now believes that the extra level of encryption was needed. “We have the recommendations from the meeting yesterday,” said Phenix/Aspen Supervisor, Donna Fore. “So, what more convincing do we need to do on an issue that’s already been voted on legitimately by this board? What more convincing do you need Supervisor Shepherd? You don’t need FBI level of encryption for the sheriff’s department of Charlotte County.”

Shepherd said, “after speaking with several of the deputies and troopers, I do believe it is necessary.”

BOS Chairman Garland Hamlett, Jr. says he has used these types of radios in the past, and they are the “Cadillac of radios” and that the factory level of encryption works well.

The BOS has set a called meeting for Oct. 30 in which they plan to have further discussion and possibly decide on whether to provide radios to the state police and game commission.