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Despite concerns, bid to get new radios advances

Staff writer

Despite sharp questioning, an application for a grant to pay for 90% of $638,633 in radios that could end public ability to monitor police broadcasts was approved Tuesday by county commissioners.

The proposal for 91 new radios was met with skepticism from commissioner Randy Dallke.

However, applying for the grant unanimously was approved by the board of commissioners after county clerk Tina Spencer assured members that the vote didn’t mean the radios would be purchased even if the state approved the grant.

In questioning emergency manager Marci Hostetler’s presentation of the proposal, Dallke noted that previous radio upgrades had resulted in unexpected expenses in the dispatch center and hard feelings among county fire departments and city police.

“I’m just getting cautious because I’ve been burned before,” he said. “I don’t want the same hostility.”

He asked and was told what expert advice had been solicited about the radios. He also was told county fire chiefs had approved the plan.

Each fire department would get two of the 91 new radios — one for its chief and one for its assistant chief.

That’s all they want, Hostetler said. The radios would allow at least one firefighter from each department to monitor encrypted transmissions by police and sheriff’s deputies.

The proposal also was endorsed by police chiefs in each county municipality.

But Dallke wasn’t impressed with a proposal for new radios less than six years after current radios were purchased.

“Even right now is too soon to be in here for all of this,” he said. “I’m just warning everybody to keep your eyes open, keep your ears open.”

Hostetler’s latest version of the proposal includes a different model of radio than was proposed in earlier drafts.

“I didn’t want to come back here in five years,” Hostetler said, “so I changed it to the one they aren’t phasing out.”

According to the grant request, the radios are needed because the model purchased six years ago was designed not for law enforcement but for public works departments.

The proposal also cites FBI rules requiring that certain information obtained from criminal databases be transmitted only on radios encrypted to a specific standard.

Current radios allow encryption, although it seldom is used, to a standard called AES-128. Until a few years ago, that standard was used to protect Defense Department nuclear launch codes. According to computer scientists, it would require 1 million years for a hacker to break AES-128 encryption by brute force.

The new standard, AES-256, encrypts data over twice as many computer bits, making it even more unlikely to be defeated by a brute-force hacker attack.

Nationwide, some state and local governments have pushed back against the FBI mandate to switch to this type of encryption or lose access to criminal databases the FBI maintains.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security standards require only that newly purchased radios contain either no encryption or AES-256 encryption.

In arguing for the new radios, the grant proposal also cites reception difficulties in some areas of the county and suggests that the new radios would have an automatic fallback to cell phone frequencies if reception problems occur.

The proposal stresses how the county is served by a single Kansas State Interoperability Communications System tower near Aulne but does not mention mesh capabilities of the KSICS network, also used by the Highway Patrol, which automatically shift transmissions to towers in adjoining counties if reception from the Aulne tower is impaired.

Most reception difficulties in the county have been reported inside buildings rather than in areas distant from the Aulne tower.

Rural areas where reception difficulties occur also may be outside cell phone reception areas.

Some of the 10% county match for the grant could come from another grant, Spencer said.

Last modified June 21, 2023

 

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