Creative System Design Solves Airport Security Problems

Airport security has come under more scrutiny in recent years than at any time in memory. Multiple layers of oversight work in every airport to first prevent incidents, then minimize the impact of security events that do occur. Here's a snapshot of the commercial airport security picture.

The Federal Aviation Administration oversees airports to prevent unauthorized access to certain critical areas. The Department of Homeland Security, through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), performs passenger screening and some baggage screening duties. Private screening companies have started to recover some of the business lost to the TSA, regaining contracts in some airports to perform passenger screening. The TSA has helped some airport operators enhance perimeter and access control security by providing funds for security equipment, and the FAA has developed several security guidebooks that provide basic direction.
Local law enforcement and National Guard assist during heightened states of alert. Airport administration is usually charged with deploying and managing access control, intrusion detection and video surveillance for areas not covered by the FAA or TSA. Outside contractors often handle parking control, but they may not be obligated to share their deployed security technologies with administrators or the government. As you can tell, which entities have responsibility for what, where, when and why, are questions best suited for Final Jeopardy contestants.

Even with this alphabet soup of oversight, airport security continues to face significant challenges. Checkpoint security breaches cause evacuations and extended terminal shutdowns, careless contractors all too frequently dig up or disable critical communications infrastructures, and information overload forces operators to tune out many of the new technologies thrust upon them. The high promise of systems integration, emerging "smart" technologies and biometrics has yet to conquer these and other problems.

While significant federal dollars have been funneled into highly touted detection technologies and personnel to combat terrorism, how have engineers and systems designers successfully addressed the problems faced by commercial airports?

Problem 1: The Checkpoint Breach

If you travel often, you have probably encountered the fallout from a screening checkpoint security breach. Typically, a person of interest gets "lost" while passing through a checkpoint carrying something they shouldn't. The airport then evacuates terminals to comb the facility for the culprit and to facilitate individual re-screening of passengers. Most of these incidents are accidents—a businessman running late for his flight, or a grandmother who forgot her glasses in her car and didn't feel she should have to go through the security line again.

Every airport terminal shutdown is painful and costly for airlines, passengers and the airport. Affected airlines lose millions during each terminal closure and face hefty fines from the FAA. Airport administration and local law enforcement also suffer reduced revenue, increased expenses and reduced efficiency. Even more costly, in some estimations, is the ancillary economic effect of the productivity loss of working passengers idled for hours.
The ripple effects of these costly terminal shutdowns resound throughout the nation's airline system for days afterward. Some airlines have suffered losses so substantial they have resorted to lawsuits against offending parties. Unfortunately, offenders are usually guilty of very poor judgment—a disability that can't usually be cured by the legal system.

Solution 1: Video Pursuit
One airport implemented automated video pursuit to combat the problem of checkpoint breaches. Automated video pursuit is an easy-to-use process that allows operators to track a subject in the airport through the use of graphical interfaces. Software-based programming automates video and other systems, assisting operators in tracking individuals.

The camera with the optimal view of the alarm device or location is called the primary video pursuit camera. This primary camera is pre-positioned to provide the optimal view of the alarm device and surrounding area. Adjacent cameras called on the alarm are referred to as secondary cameras. In this airport's installation, the GUI positions the secondary cameras around the primary camera in a multi-screen configuration, ranging from five to nine cameras per scene.
Secondary cameras are pre-positioned to view areas adjacent to the primary camera, so when a person moves out of the primary view they appear in the secondary view. The secondary cameras' field of view should overlap the primary field of view by 10% to allow the operator to identify the subject via the appropriate secondary camera before the subject leaves the view of the primary camera. Activation of pursuit can be started with a keyboard function, or hot key, an icon on the video display, or via a pull-down menu associated with each camera.

In this installation, the operators control pursuit on a local 20" touch-screen flat-panel display. Terminal floor plans are displayed on an adjacent monitor for easy reference. During video pursuit, the operator can touch any secondary camera window to cause that camera to be displayed in the center of the matrix. Adjacent cameras are then re-configured to include cameras adjacent to the new primary camera.

Pursuits can be unpredictable, so the system must include enough camera presets, carefully placed, to account for all the most likely routes of pursuit. Contract and construction documents must thoroughly identify these requirements to ensure successful implementation by security contractors. Multiple alarms can be handled either by another workstation or in sequence. An operator may enable or disable video pursuit at any time through a keyboard hotkey or a permanently displayed icon on the operator console.

Video pursuit software is designed to take advantage of emerging technologies as they become more reliable and user friendly. The system can use video analytics software to detect objects left behind, people heading the wrong way and the like, and it can report these events to the alarm, access control, video surveillance and digital recording systems.

Problem 2: Communications Reliability
Another problem facing airport security today is the unpredicatability of security video and data communications. Numerous construction projects at larger airports increase the likelihood for accidental damage. Infrastructure and component failures also cause system down time. For many new systems, routine maintenance and virus protection updates require interruption of active video monitoring, control and recording. While the risks are numerous, accidental damage has caused significant impact to the reliability of video surveillance and security data systems to date. Communications can be down for weeks or months due to carelessness. In today's world, any extended downtime of these critical systems is not acceptable and must be proactively addressed by systems designers.

Solution 2: Self-Healing Communications
To improve system reliability, some airport security data and video communications designs have incorporated self-healing fiber-optic ring architecture. In one layout, an eight-mile, single-mode and multi-mode fiber-optic ring around the airport provides the backbone. This design provides a constantly managed dual-path transmission system that maintains video and data communications even if cables are severed or suffer a single point of failure. Software integrated into the command-and-control display systems constantly monitors the status and quality of the fiber-optic video network.

Fiber failure and transmitter or receiver failure is sensed at the nearest fiber-optic monitoring station, and both video and data are automatically switched to the secondary transmission path in the opposite direction. The specific location and type of fiber-optic system failure is automatically shown graphically on operator displays. Monitoring, electronic diagnosis and transmission re-routing are done quickly enough to ensure no noticeable loss of video or data signals. Alarms are also generated should the camera signal be lost. Events generated by the network management software are reported to alarm and logged in the access control and video systems for appropriate action.

Problem 3: Information Overload
Airport administration security operators are responsible for monitoring an increasing blizzard of independent audio and video communications systems coming from various air-side and land-side operations. Two-way radio, 911 phones, crash phones, fire alarms, airfield alarms, unattended baggage calls, lost and found, paging, intercom, computer-aided dispatch, access control alarms and video surveillance monitoring are just some of the operator duties. In addition, reams of procedure documents are stockpiled nearby for reference during incidents. Staff turnover in these critical positions due to information overload can cause a host of problems for administrators.

Solution 3: Command-and-Control Software
The object of command-and-control software is to automate the display, alarming, recording and reporting of appropriate system activity amongst various elements of the security system. Automatic configuration frees operators from having to perform multiple difficult control tasks simultaneously, gives operators more time to respond to incidents (thus reducing operator error), and ensures critical tasks occur consistently.

One airport that implemented command-and-control software gave operators six ergonomically designed workstations that are positioned to view three 50" displays mounted in a video wall. These displays allow supervisors and others clear views of critical functions throughout the command center. Information appearing on these displays can be reconfigured at the touch of a button or automated for alarm conditions and operator-initiated routines. Each display is easily reprogrammed on the fly to display any combination of video images, graphical maps or other systems information.

Security operators' desktop workstations include three 20" monitors configured for video, access control and computer-aided dispatch. On alarm, command-and-control software sends control commands to media converters that configure the displays as needed. Video images assigned to video pursuit are displayed on one of the operator's local 20" touch-screen LCD monitors, as well as on the central display of the video wall.

Positive Results
The consensus of airport staff is that these new systems have saved aviation stakeholders substantial cost and headache and will continue to do so in the years to come.
Increased efficiency of surveillance activities, combined with robust communications and seamless integration with video pursuit, greatly increases an airport's ability to avert costly terminal shutdowns. Video pursuit has proven so helpful to system operators in our example airport that they usually operate the video system in pursuit mode even when no security event is occurring.
Fiber-optic redundant communications have proven effective for their purpose. In our example airport, incidents of routine maintenance and other non-security work, which previously had negatively impacted video system functionality, are now transparent to operators and administrators.
Integration with varied existing systems has significantly eased the information overload that historically occurs during alarm conditions. Supervisors can more effectively absorb information and make command decisions without crowding over the shoulder of operators.

James R. Black, CPP, PSP, CSC serves as senior security consultant for TRC Security out of their Irvine, CA office. Over the past 12 years, Mr. Black has assessed threats and designed security systems for critical infrastructures including international airports, water systems, chemical plants, healthcare facilities, college campuses, police departments and historical landmarks. Mr. Black is a member of ATAP, ASIS and the International Association of Professional Security Consultants. He holds security licenses from Sandia National Laboratories, has received DHS training and has published numerous articles about current and emerging security technologies.