Eyes Wide Open
Thermal imaging helps execute port security
The Port of Portland services more than 800 vessel calls each year,
accounting for more than 14 million tons of ocean-going cargo. A
complex of four marine terminals, the port processes a diverse mix
of cargo including bulk, breakbulk, containers and automobiles.
Terminal operations continue night and day all year round, so
the security infrastructure needs to be effective regardless of weather or lighting
To meet the ever-changing demands and conditions, port officials have spent
the last two years designing and implementing an impressive security upgrade,
funded in part through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. These
improvements focused on Terminals 2, 4, and 6, multipurpose and multi-modal
facilities that need to control access from pedestrian, vehicle, rail, and sea routes.
The port hired CH2M Hill as the consulting engineer firm for this comprehensive
Covering 280 acres, Terminal 4 has seven berths that handle vehicle, bulk, and
liquid bulk cargos. Terminal 6 is a deep draft container terminal that spreads over
380 acres; it also services vehicles and break bulk cargos. Each terminal can process
1,000 trucks a day, in addition to all of its normal rail traffic
Some of the new security systems focus on the cargo and its containers. Examples
include an Optical Character Recognition system, which scans shipping
container markings and matches these markings to a truck’s license plate, and
Radiation Portal Monitors, which scan containers for abnormal levels of radiation
that may betray the presence of a dirty bomb.
Still other parts of the port’s security upgrade involved the terminal’s physical
security. These included the installation of improved guardhouses, reinforced
fencing, improved access control through the implementation of the nationwide
Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) system, and the integration
of Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) thermal imaging cameras.
It’s not unheard of for those responsible for acquisitions in municipalities—
state, local, and federal—to hesitate when they see the cost of thermal security
cameras. Even though they are available for less than $3,000, some managers see
thermal cameras as a significant investment when compared to the cost of run-ofthe-
mill CCTV cameras.
What they’re not taking into account is the thermal camera’s ability to act as a
force multiplier, allowing law enforcement officers of all stripes to react more effectively—
responding to greater numbers of crimes with fewer officers, and using
agency resources more efficiently.
Thermal security cameras let you see what your eyes can’t: invisible heat radiation
emitted by all objects regardless of lighting conditions. Thermal cameras detect
the minute temperature differences between objects and turn them into video
that you can watch on almost any TV monitor.
Because they see heat, not light, thermal cameras are effective law enforcement
tools in any environment. They can easily detect intruders and other potential
hazards to the security of people and infrastructure in any weather, as well as all
day and all night.
CCTV cameras and human eyes both make images from reflected light. This is
light energy that hits something, bounces off it, is received by a detector, and then
turned into an image.
Cameras that create images based on visible light have the advantage of creating
images that are familiar and easy to interpret. Unfortunately, the ability of
a given detector—be it in an eyeball or a camera—to create these images relates
directly to the amount of light available.
At night, for instance, when there isn’t much visible light to work with, people
are limited to starlight, moonlight and artificial lights to help see. Simply but, if
there isn’t enough light, people can’t see.
Another limitation of cameras that create images from reflected visible light is
contrast. Like the human eye, these cameras create better images if the object you
are looking for has lots of contrast compared to its background. If it doesn’t, you
won’t see it. That’s how camouflage works; it’s essentially a way of decreasing the
visible contrast between an object and its surroundings.
Thermal cameras don’t suffer from the basic limitations of visible-light imaging.
First, thermal cameras make pictures from heat, not light, having nothing
whatsoever to do with reflected light energy. They see the heat given off by everything
under the sun. Everything you encounter in daily life creates heat energy, called a “heat signature,” that a thermal
imager can see.
Not only does everything have a
heat signature, but these heat signatures
create their own contrast, so the thermal
energy seen by thermal cameras
generally creates a better image at night
than during the day. They work just
fine during the day—as long as there is
the tiniest bit of temperature contrast
between an object and its background,
you can see it—but they work best at
night. And nighttime, as we all know,
is when homeland security and other
law enforcement professionals need the
most help to see.
An important tactical distinction to
understand is that security operators,
law enforcement officers and federal
agents aren’t using thermal cameras to
identify suspected criminals and terrorists.
They use thermal cameras to detect
the presence of people in restricted or
suspect areas, assess the tactical situation
and respond accordingly. Thermal
cameras are the best tools officers and
agents can use to know how many bad
guys they’re facing, and consequently
how many good guys should respond
to meet the threat, because people cannot
hide their heat.
Thermal security cameras also act
as a force multiplier, allowing law enforcement
and security operators to
work hand in hand and react more effectively,
responding to threats with the
appropriate force and using agency resources
For instance, thermal security cameras
have been widely adopted as the
imaging technology of choice to answer
federal regulations requiring continuous
24-hour surveillance, observation,
and monitoring of the perimeter and
control areas at critical infrastructure
facilities such as nuclear plants, energy
production facilities, and ports.
They have become an integral part
of the delay, detect and respond strategy—
the increased detection range
giving security forces more time to respond,
contain and neutralize adversaries before they can access or damage
nuclear materials or facilities.
Thermal cameras output IP as well
as standard RS-170 video signals, so it
is easy to transmit via wireless networks
while also working easily with video analytics
By coupling their FLIR cameras
with a video analytics package, the Port
of Portland created a virtual perimeter
that helps its security teams detect
movement in areas that are otherwise a
practical impossibility to secure physically.
Most notably are the rail access
points, ship berths and other waterfront
Trains come into the terminal areas
at all hours of night and day, so fencing
terminals or the areas around them
would be impractical, expensive and
dangerous. This is an obvious vulnerability,
because anyone could walk down
the tracks and be inside port property
before the security team knew about it.
With the FLIR thermal cameras, however,
port security can monitor rail access
points, 24 hours a day and receive
alarms whenever anyone crosses onto
Waterfront areas are similarly impractical
to secure physically. Fences
aren’t a solution because of the allhours
access needed by ships, equipment
and longshoremen alike, and
lighting would be prohibitively expensive.
Like rail access points, thermal
cameras can effectively monitor large
waterfront areas—Terminal 6 is almost
three miles long— and send alarms to
the security operations guardhouse for
evaluation and response.
The Port of Portland’s thermal cameras,
operating alongside daylight and
lowlight video cameras, provide an overlapping
mix of video coverage. Fixed
thermal cameras of 19mm, 35mm,
50mm and 100mm focal lengths surveil
stationary areas and choke points.
While daylight and lowlight cameras
have definite advantages when lighting
conditions allow their use, thermal cameras
have proven their worth at night.
“Lowlight cameras just aren’t there,
compared to thermal, which gives you
a bold image,” said Forrest Gist, a
CH2M Hill security project manager
who worked on the Port of Portland
Thermal security cameras change
the way business is done in the security
profession. They don’t need light,
they work 24/7, and they see potential
intruders from miles away, instead of
just feet. Until low-cost FLIR thermal
cameras came about, they were not an
option for most installations simply because
of their cost. But today thermal
cameras are affordable, and security
professionals around the world, including
at the Port of Portland, are convinced
of their necessity.
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Security Today.