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High Flying Security

There are not many topics that can invoke more mass fear in the general public than threats against major U.S. airports. As portrayed in the media and the average traveler’s mind, the primary threat lies inside the terminal where security officials are constantly on high alert for concealed weapons, explosives and other banned materials. Conversely, as airport officials are aware, there is another and perhaps more apparent threat at airports.

The Airport Perimeter

Strengthening perimeter security at airports provides a solid foundation for protection of lives and continuity of operations. As threats against airports continue to evolve, airport perimeter security requires constant evaluation for appropriate response planning, as well as enhanced surveillance and security technologies available.

Commercial airports are one of the major hubs of U.S. transportation. The Federal Aviation Administration classifies 546 airports as “commercial service” airports. The top 10 U.S. airlines operate more than 400,000 commercial flights each month and more than 30,000 commercial flights each day.

Most U.S. airports, runways and terminals were built decades ago, when security requirements were immensely unlike those needed today. Since 9/11, installing networked surveillance systems, including long- and short-range radars, thermal imaging cameras and video monitoring, has proven to be the most comprehensive way to detect intruders, unauthorized vehicles and low-flying aircraft to preserve human life and provide continuity of operations.

Current State of Perimeter Security

Today’s modern airports have become self-contained urban-esque “cities,” with roadways, passages, buildings and myriad of intertwined pedestrians and vehicles. Combine that with the reality that no two airport perimeters are alike; each has unique borders, including roads, rural areas, waterways, coastlines and urban borders. This presents a distinctive security and surveillance challenge to ensure the safety of the “city.”

The role of any perimeter security system is the perimeter fence and the perimeter intrusion detection system (PIDS) with its response mechanism, together acting as the first level of site protection.

Unprotected perimeters mean unprotected assets, unprotected people, and, inevitably, security breaches. The most commonly used perimeter security measure at airports, even since Sept. 11, 2001, are fence lines, fence alarms and mobile security vehicles monitoring the various boundaries, which have been easily breached in several instances in the past decade. Any security system is only as strong as its weakest link. The smart intruders rarely defeat the sensors or PIDS. Instead, they rely on poor alarm response procedures and mechanisms—the human element— to avoid getting caught.

For example, in 2009, the driver of a suspected stolen truck led police on a wild chase on the tarmac of the Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Ariz., after the vehicle penetrated airfield security by crashing through two chain-link perimeter fences and weaving between planes. The vehicle was seen driving up alongside loaded commercial jets in the process of taxiing for take-off. As the driver was taken into custody, authorities scrambled to figure out how he managed to simply drive onto the sensitive tarmac area, which is dotted with billions of dollars worth of aircraft and hundreds of people.

During the summer of 2004, a driver swerved his car off the perimeter road, penetrated a cyclone fence and found himself inside the secure perimeter of Midway Airport in Chicago, Ill. This was an accident. If that driver, or the driver of the stolen truck in Phoenix, had been a terrorist with a truckload of explosives and had headed for the terminal building, an airplane loaded with fuel, or the airport fuel farm, results would have been tragic.

In August 2010, Australian authorities investigated a security breach at Melbourne Airport. The intruder climbed a barbwire fence completely undetected before dawn on July 24, into the “airside” security area, and then walked to the Virgin Blue hanger. He then pulled on a pair of staff overalls, stole a vehicle and drove for some time within the secure area of the airport that encompasses the landing strip and terminal areas before being noticed and arrested.

Airport perimeter security is primarily the responsibility of airport operators, so without federal regulations, each airport is left determining its own security needs. Until mandated or legislated by government, or becoming a victim of a security breach themselves, many commercial airports will continue to limit their perimeter security to patrolling security guards and a fence line.

Surveillance and Security Options: What to Look For, What’s Available

Airport security staff have an unenviable job; they must not only be aware that a security breach has occurred but must be able to quickly assess the threat level, immediately implement an emergency response plan and continually monitor threat movement.

A PIDS’s main goal is to detect threats, deter threats, assess situations and implement appropriate action. As stated above, the most universal perimeter security at airports is the installation of fence and gate systems and fence alarms.

Though they are a critical first deterrent, there are several problems with fence and fence alarm systems as the main source for airport security. The first issue is when a fence alarm sounds, the security breach has already occurred; the second issue is fence alarms are prone to false alarms (i.e., animals, wind, human error); the third problem is no video tracking or continual monitoring of the situation.

These issues present challenges from a response standpoint. Before an appropriate emergency response plan can be implemented, airport security officials need more information in order to react appropriately; they need to know what type of threat has occurred, from what direction the threat is coming and what direction it is headed and if lives are in immediate jeopardy. Meanwhile, they must constantly monitor the threat. While fences and fence alarms are important in threat deterrence, they are not a stand-alone solution.

The last decade has seen new and substantial advancement in PIDS technologies, increasing the reliability and accuracy of probability of detection (POD), lowering the number of nuisance and false alarms, and greatly improving their performance (differentiating between intruders and environmental disturbances).

Implementing a multilayered defense PIDS program is the optimal approach to deterring outside threats, preserving assets and ensuring uninterrupted operations. Every airport should have a comprehensive threat analysis that identifies the nature and appropriate response for potential threats. Ideally, a 360-degree comprehensive perimeter coverage to rapidly identify and assess threats is needed. An effective system should include a combination of sensors, CCTV cameras, thermal imagers, all-weather radars and appropriate detection strategies for the terrain and potential threats. Thought must be given to response strategies, including the appropriate agency; airport security, local law enforcement, and firefighter notifications should be integrated into a Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. Multiple responders require access to a central command and control center, which can be challenging both technologically and procedurally. Thought must be given to data dissemination and transmission technologies for first responders and methods for establishing a clear chain of command.

Being able to use networked surveillance systems, including long- and short-range radars, thermal imaging cameras and video monitoring, is the most comprehensive solution to detect intruders, unauthorized vehicles and unidentified aircraft at large U.S. airports, but small airports need perimeter protection, too. One of the most deadly intruders at small airports is wildlife. Deer, coyote, geese and other wildlife are the source of many accidents and could potentially be thwarted with the proper technology. Thermal imagers are particularly effective in detection of wildlife on airport grounds and can effectively be used as a warning to air traffic. Virtual access can provide airport operators with interrogation capabilities from offsite locations for remote airports that are unstaffed during certain periods of their operations.

The Port Authority of New York/New Jersey Airports

The New York Port Authority Airports have a unique challenge of water borders, land borders and fence lines to protect from intrusion and ever-changing outside threats, as well as being the “center of the universe” for international and domestic travel.

Keeping these issues at the forefront, the port embarked on a project to install integrated security and surveillance systems, providing 360-degree surveillance capability at the four airports in its PIDS program. With a suite of cameras and surveillance systems installed around the four airports under the port authority’s jurisdiction, all of the information is fed real-time to a series of command and control centers around the airports for 24/7 monitoring and response assessment.

Where are We Headed? What should we Look Out For?

Global social and political instability with the ongoing threat of terrorism will continue to drive the need to both fund and enforce regulation and legislation regarding perimeter security at U.S commercial airports, as well as at nuclear power stations, water reservoirs, data centers, transportation hubs and historic landmarks.

Legislation will continue to play a major role in the growth of perimeter security equipment along with stimulus monies and other regulation. Research estimates that global spending on electronic perimeter security equipment will reach $402 million in 2011, a 5 percent increase over 2010.

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