Residents of most cities in the Lower Mainland can expect big delays when hearing about serious or life-threatening emergencies as first responders cut the public off from listening to their communication, a CTV News investigation has found.

A new, $60-million radio scanner system is improving communications among fire departments, police and paramedics, but it's also leaving the public and the media out of the loop – meaning citizens who may be in danger during a disaster could be uninformed until officers knock on their door.

“Having information allows us to figure out what we’re doing and make judgments,” said Chelsea Linkletter, who lives just across the Lougheed Highway from a railyard that went up in flames earlier this year.

A truck carrying ethanol collided with a CP Railway car on Jan. 22 – and all Linkletter could see was a giant fireball.

“At first it appeared to be the restaurant on the corner. But the fireball appeared to be moving,” Linkletter told CTV News.

She got in touch with her daughter, who was able to find news stories about it within minutes, letting the family know what was going on. Reading those helped the family realize the scope of the danger – and get ready to evacuate.

“When the RCMP told us we had to leave, we understood why,” Linkletter said.

In that case, news stories came out quickly because media were able to listen to firefighters discuss their response over their radios.

The fire department was dispatched at 6:38 p.m. that day. First responders including the RCMP were there in minutes, knocking on the doors of those closest to the incident and getting residents to flee the area. The first reports of the fire were corroborated by news agencies quickly, and the first breaking news tweets were posted to Twitter by 6:50 p.m. And by 6:55 p.m., the news was on CTV’s television broadcast.

Without the ability to listen, news organizations would have had to wait for the city of Port Coquitlam’s official tweet, which came out at 7:15 p.m. – 35 minutes after the radios.

It’s a length of time that should really concern citizens who need information to make decisions that keep them safe, says Josh Paterson of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

“When you have an event where there could be possible contamination in neighbourhoods, risks to air quality, it’s not fast enough for the media to be finding out about it half an hour after it takes place. Folks need to know,” he said.

Media have been listening to first responder radio traffic for decades across North America. As new technology has come online that allows private communication, some, like York region in Ontario, have decided to encrypt but others, including Waterloo, have made the decision to stay open.

The new radio communications is an upgrade to a P25 digital trunked Motorola radio system, decided by E-Comm, the agency that handles 911 communications for most cities in the Lower Mainland. One of its central missions is to help first responders communicate better.

And the system itself is doing that job well, said Port Coquitlam Fire Chief Nick Delmonico, pointing to improved audio, noise-cancelling technology, multiple channels, and GPS tracking.

“The old system was cutting out on us, not providing communications, and this system is leaps and bounds ahead compared to what we used to have,” he said.

But when it comes to communicating to outside agencies during a disaster, he says that can’t be left up to first responders, because they’re busy saving lives on the ground.

“There’s a million things to do, like cordoning off the area,” he said. “Personal safety is paramount to us. We’ll get it out as soon as we can.”

E-Comm board member Raymond Louie said the change was done because of the private information such as addresses that occasionally is said over the radios.

“You don’t know who is on the other side of that scanner,” Louie said. “There could be private information transmitted through fire and ambulances and police and this information is important for us to keep safe.”

Both Louie and B.C.’s Privacy Commissioner confirmed that E-Comm had received no privacy complaints. E-Comm has said it’s up to individual municipalities to figure out how to quickly communicate with its citizens.

Louie said apps and social media operated by the City of Vancouver could fill the void.

The City of Burnaby has decided against upgrading to the E-Comm system, saying that instead of being part of a $60-million spend, it upgraded to a digital system for just several hundred thousand dollars.

“Our firefighters don’t think there is any need for them to go to this encrypted system that E-Comm is doing,” said Councillor Pietro Calendino.

Several fire departments told CTV News that they signed on to the encrypted system because they were told by E-Comm that it was the only option.

However CTV News has learned that isn’t true. The City of Toronto upgraded to the same brand system and encrypted its police radios to stop criminals from listening in – but left its fire department radios unencrypted.

And a distributor of the technology confirmed to CTV News that each channel could be encrypted or left open, meaning fire department channels could be open, but the channel they use to communicate with the police could be encrypted.

Other cities across Canada have found other solutions that inform the media and the public in real time about emergencies. Regina and Calgary have encrypted their radios, but allowed scanners in newsrooms at a cost to the media organizations. In Hamilton, police arranged for an online system that shared dispatch information with a short delay.

It’s not clear whether E-Comm considered such a move. The agency has refused to provide minutes of its meetings regarding the change, and has asked CTV news to submit Freedom of Information requests for any unanswered questions – a process that could take months.

Meanwhile, the City of Vancouver encrypted its fire department communications last week. Delta, the City of Langley and the Township of Langley are the next to go offline. 

Use the slider below to view which municipalities will be going silent following the upgrade, and which will remain accessible.