SEBRING - The days when Highlands County residents could turn on their police scanners and find out when authorities were investigating the discovery of a body or the latest bank robbery came to an abrupt end Wednesday morning.
That's when the Highlands County Sheriff's Office and all police and fire departments switched from a decades-old radio system to an 800-megahertz system.
As a result of the changeover, which Capt. J.P. Fane said went smoothly, all law enforcement communications will be encrypted, meaning no one will be able to buy a scanner and understand what is being said.
Fane said part of the reason for the transfer is modern technology allows more people, including criminals, more opportunities to hear communications, such as through cell phone scanner apps.
When a bank robbery occurs, "we don't want them (the robbers) to be listening to it," he said.
Fane said the sheriff's office could operate with only those communications, being encrypted when needed, but that could lead to the possibility of error.
While scanner owners won't hear those communications, they will be able to listen to fire department calls, provided they have the right kind of scanner that can handle a radio trunking system, he said.
The need for more encryption, however, wasn't the primary reason for moving to a new $7.2 million system, which includes two new communications towers and more than 400 new radios for firefighters, law enforcement and emergency medical personnel, Fane said.
The most compelling reason was that the system was outdated and the day was coming when it would have been impossible to find replacement parts, he said.
"That was absolutely right around the corner," Fane said.
The new system provides for better countywide coverage and the ability to communicate with neighboring law enforcement agencies that already have switched to the new system, Fane said.
After eight months of development for the system, Cmdr. Steve Carr, of the Sebring Police Department, said he was pleased so far.
"It went very smoothly," Carr said of the transition. "We're having no problems."
"So far, so good," said Sebring Fire Chief Brad Batz.
He said the system provides better coverage area and clearer communications. He also said he likes that the radios are more water resistant.
The only glitch involved sound over the paging system, he said, but added that was fixed in 30 minutes.
That was far shorter than the time it took to bring the new system to Highlands County.
"We have talked about it for over a decade in the county," Fane said, adding that money was the main problem.
But, as the old system became less and less sustainable, the momentum toward getting a new one increased, he said.
Although it took several more months to get the system activated, Fane said, the problem wasn't with Motorola, the company that sold it. A delay occurred with licensing the channels and getting state approval, he said.
"Motorola did an outstanding job installing the system and getting it up and running," he said.