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Monday 16 March, 2009

Protecting airports against security threats

How can airports possibly protect themselves against the sheer scale and span of 21st century security threats? Ashley Smith, BSIA Civil Aviation Security Section Chairman, explains how a mix of properly interfaced systems working in conjunction with monitoring and response staff offers a cost-efficient and flexible solution.

The protection of large airport sites presents particular challenges, with vulnerabilities such as perimeter breaches in relatively remote areas away from the airport’s hub being difficult to detect. However, advances in the sophistication, reliability and competitive pricing of security systems, combined with improved integration between different equipment manufacturers offers an effective solution.

Risk assessment specification decisions also need to cover a very broad canvas, to combat potential threats ranging from those more commonly anticipated at other types of site – such as vandalism, thefts and arson attacks – to incidents posing more specific hazards towards aviation. These include environmental protesters staging break-ins to cause damage and disruption and, of course, terrorist attacks on infrastructure, aviation & airline staff, and passengers.

Strengths & weaknesses
One of the perceived weaknesses of a large site can be transformed into a potential strength, in terms of its ability to provide early warning of suspicious behaviour, for example along a perimeter fence – before an unwelcome visitor can reach their target. The physical distances involved can be used to the site’s advantage using a mix of detection, monitoring equipment and security guarding responses. Along an airport’s outer perimeter, fencing can present both a physical and electronic deterrence, with specification decisions regarding fencing equipment complexity depending on factors such as the proximity of vulnerable and important elements. Important elements would include airfield power supplies, runways, hangars and cargo storage facilities.

Working in collaboration with the physical fencing hardware, vibration and movement detectors will provide proactive warnings to security staff in the airport’s security control room, alerting operators to the scaling of a fence and other breaches requiring a response. This working method avoids the need for repetitive and unnecessary labour intensive patrols of areas, which can be costly in manpower terms and miss other incidents occurring elsewhere. Allied to these efficiency improvements are additional electronic security systems such as vandal resistant day/night closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras with powerful optical zooms, linked to advanced detection methods including thermal (i.e. infrared lighting) and radar techniques.

This use of multiple, integrated technologies allows intruders to be detected and tracked in real-time, with the alerted CCTV operators using the thermal images to direct colleagues on the ground to apprehend the intruders. Security cameras can work in all weather or lighting conditions using these complementary techniques, providing evidential quality recorded images for follow-up prosecutions using digital video storage. An extra benefit at airports is the ability that techniques such as thermal imaging provide to selectively use ‘white’ (or visible) light, including floodlamps. This ensures, for instance, that aircraft pilots are not suddenly distracted or even blinded by security lighting.

The use of IP (Internet Protocol) connectivity also provides flexibility in optimising camera placement, with wireless transmission methods such as 3G mobile phone signals meaning that physical connections such as fibre optic cabling are not required, with their associated cost and installation disruption. The relative ease of IP-enabled cameras’ installation can serve a dual purpose, helping keep an eye on staff working in remote areas of the airfield for both security and health and safety purposes. Managers can also dial-in to a camera network remotely, to view images without needing to visit the control room.

Software solutions
Helping to sort through the multiple scenarios that face security teams is an advanced surveillance-related filter in the form of video analytics. This type of analysis is also benefiting from ongoing investment by systems suppliers who are addressing the need for cost effective, meaningful, reliable and user-friendly software. As a ‘force multiplier’ that frees up security personnel to be more effective, this technology also offers the attraction of added value functionality that helps pay for its own deployment. In practical terms, video analytics involves software processing algorithms that analyse camera data from a scene, detect situations that meet a certain set of conditions, filter them for possible false alarms and then, if verified, issue an alert that security staff can react to in the appropriate way.

This is a move beyond traditional video motion detection and offers significant future potential in combating crime threats. At an airport perimeter, the technology could, for example, use what’s called a ‘virtual tripwire’ – essentially an area of the scene that triggers an alarm when an object enters that zone. Closer to the centre of passenger operations, video analytics technology can also flag up the presence of left baggage in a terminal or other sensitive area.

Access control
Besides the detection and monitoring of movements at an airport, security staff and systems must also control, manage and verify a high volume of round-the-clock traffic, including passengers, staff, contractors, maintenance crews, suppliers and other visitors. This management process begins again at the perimeter, allowing back-up time and resources to be deployed in the event of problems. Physical measures including gates, barriers and bollards can be used to control vehicles intent on access, while validation processes check the identity of individuals and their vehicle contents.

Depending on the type of airport facility involved, its geographic location within the airfield and related risk factors, these checks can vary in size and scale. They can range from use of temporary contractors’ permits using a paper based logging system through to photo ID working in conjunction with access control cards carrying a magnetic stripe, barcode or RFID chip for more convenient proximity reading of card details and activation of gates, turnstiles or vehicle barriers. It is important to verify the daily influx of visitors for more than security purposes because airports, like other companies, have a legislated ‘duty of care’ towards every visitor, requiring them to ensure that non-employees are not exposed to health and safety risks.

Trained response
A holistic security systems environment will involve different types of protective equipment communicating collectively to contribute more than the sum of their parts. For instance, CCTV cameras on automatic area ‘tours’ will immediately react to the opening of a vehicle barrier by instantly refocusing on this area and triggering the digital recording of the event for subsequent identity validation or prosecution purposes. BSIA member companies provide a range of effective systems based solutions, as well as the trained and skilled manpower to both implement and manage them. For example, competent, flexible and observant CCTV operators will need to work with adaptable, self-reliant and resourceful security officers to provide the necessary response to identified incidents. These staff can also provide a variety of added value roles during their daily duties that contribute towards the airport’s overall operating efficiency and effectiveness.

Working in tandem with physical and electronic security, security teams are a fundamental element within an increasingly integrated security ‘envelope’ designed to ensure realistic and cost-effective protection for the wide span of airport operations.

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