WALTON COUNTY - As Feb. 18, 2009, marks the beginning of the complete digital age for television, Thursday marks the beginning of the digital age for Walton County's emergency communications system.

As part of the 2006 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum, the county is upgrading its 9-1-1 communication system - which means a move into the digital age. According to Wendra Williams, director of the county's Central Communication Department, testing has taken place over the past couple of weeks and the goal is to make the switchover this week.

"Walton County made the decision to purchase the digital 800 MHz system as an enhancement for public safety," Williams said. "It is of the utmost importance to protect the public that we serve as well as our public safety officers."

The new system will provide a greater quality of transmission as well as better overall radio coverage in Walton County - which was of great concern to county officials as they were parts of the county that were "dead zones" for law enforcement radios.

In addition, the digital system will also allow greater interoperability with surrounding systems like Gwinnett and Hall counties.

The digital signal will be encrypted, according to Williams, for the safety of law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services personnel. Officers will be able to be in high crime areas without having every movement followed by suspects with portable scanners. Encryption will also allow for discretion for private occurrences such as rape or a sexual assault.

But for Gordon Edwards, who lives in Dacula and operates a nationwide Web site called ScanAmerica - which hosts the local ScanWalton site - there are downsides to the move to an encrypted digital signal.

"One side effect of encrypting everything is that the public is not as well informed," Edwards said. "Often, when a lookout is given for a car matching a certain description, people with handheld scanners that hear the description would keep an eye out for the car, acting as an extra set of eyes and ears for the police department. That is not possible if they decide to shut everyone out by encrypting all of their traffic."

Edwards believes counties should only encrypt sensitive channels, like those of the SWAT team or undercover operations, similar to what Cobb County did when it made the switch to digital a few years ago. He added it costs an extra $300 to $700 per radio to have them support encryption.

Walton County allocated $10 million of its SPLOST funds for the upgrades. As the project comes online, it has stayed within its proposed budget and Williams said it cost only an additional $10 for the encrpytion as the equipment was new, not being upgraded. And for county officials, it is all money well spent.

"When the technology advances, Walton County should try and keep up with those advances. With the digital radio system, we have accomplished this," Williams said. "This radio system was not purchased for secrecy. It is a benefit for safety officers. It is the next step to improve countywide radio communications."

The move may also play a role in helping establish a regional public safety radio system.

According to published reports, officials from Clarke, Oconee, Greene, Morgan and Walton counties are discussing a partnership to establish a regional network. The move would put all of the counties on the same wavelengths - 800 MHz - but each would still be able to maintain its own radio traffic.

The network would allow for better communications between departments and allow the area to catch up with the rest of the state - this area is the only one in the state that does not have a regional public safety radio system.

The current talks are centering around utilizing Walton's new system as the base for the future regional system.

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