Cameras and electronic fences that secure O'Hare Airport have been malfunctioning in recent days, leaving portions of the airport potentially vulnerable, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
A corrupted data file triggered the software problem impacting the 1,000-camera network that feeds video images to the O'Hare Communications Center in the basement of O'Hare's indoor parking garage.
The center is the airport equivalent of Chicago's 911 center, complete with dispatchers seated at video consoles. Cameras monitor all "access control doors" leading to secured, backstage areas of the airport and to the airfield.
Whenever a door alarm goes off, video is supposed to be sent automatically to a dispatcher's console, pinpointing the location of the breach.
The so-called "automatic trigger" feature was interrupted nearly two weeks ago, when the data file was corrupted, according to Andrew Velasquez, executive director of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
'SERIOUS, AIRPORT-WIDE PROBLEM'
"Instead of using the auto trigger, the operator simply has to dial up the video manually. That can be done instantaneously when the alarm goes off and the signal is sent. It's a simple point-and-click function," Velasquez said.
"The video can still be viewed within seconds. In no way shape or form was security at O'Hare compromised as a result of this issue."
The software problem was finally repaired late last week, Velasquez said, adding, "Throughout this entire [period], the alarms and video were both healthy."
Employees who work in the O'Hare Operations Center tell a different story. They say the 15-year-old camera system is still malfunctioning -- and that the problem goes beyond the automatic trigger.
"There's a serious, airport-wide problem with the cameras," said a source familiar with the problem.
"The cameras are going up and down. They're in service. They're out of service. They're working. They're not working. They come and go. They don't have a picture on the monitor. They don't see anything."
For at least a week, dispatchers had no video on their consoles, according to an employee who works at the O'Hare Operations Center. Even after the temporary fix, the system is not working properly, the employee said.
"If we got an alarm, we used to be able to choose that camera and look. You can't do that right now. They hot-wired it. Whatever [video] pops up, pops up. We have to send security for every single thing," the employee said.
The problem with the $18 million electronic fence that secures O'Hare's perimeter stems from Mayor Daley's massive airport expansion project.
Although the fence was installed just three years ago, a 112-foot portion on the northwest side of the airport was removed last week and replaced with a 12-foot-high chain-link fence to make way for construction of a new runway, according to Aviation Department spokeswoman Wendy Abrams.
During the process of removing the fence, a contractor reportedly hit an electrical line, knocking out power to a much larger portion of the electronic fence, said a source familiar with the problem.
The barbed-wire fence is roughly 8 feet tall. Six horizontal wires each have their own sensors. If anyone attempts to climb over, under or through the fence, the sensor is triggered.
'MORE THAN ADEQUATE'
"Half of the $18 million fence does not have sensors linked to the [airport] 911 center," the source said. "That means that, if someone intrudes on the north side of the airport, they won't know it."
Arguing that it would jeopardize passenger safety, Abrams was tight-lipped when asked whether the previously planned fence removal triggered a larger problem with the electronic fence.
She would only say, "We have multiple and layered security systems currently in place that protect the airport perimeter. And we are very confident that these security measures are more than adequate."
The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that a perimeter gate at Midway Airport breached by an intoxicated man who wandered onto the airfield had no security camera, despite Daley's affinity for video surveillance.
Of the three gates at Midway, two already have cameras. The gate at 55th and Laramie was the one gate that did not, Abrams said at the time.
O'Hare has 10 perimeter checkpoints. All but one have cameras.
Some consider the O'Hare cameras installed in 1991 ancient given how much technology has advanced since then.
Asked if the video surveillance system needs to be replaced, Velasquez said, "There are plans in the very near future to migrate the existing camera system onto the Operation Virtual Shield platform. That will enable us to have expanded capacity to add as many more cameras as we want to on a solid and robust fiber-optic network."