From Bigfoot to Ballerina

Online Exclusive - From Bigfoot to Ballerina: Compressing the Border Checkpoint's Footprint

Border checkpoints can’t afford to cut technologies or staff to reduce their footprint because doing so could allow dangerous materials, contraband or even outright threats to enter the country unchecked.

There are many positive things to say about the current state of border security, especially when it comes to checkpoints.  Emerging technologies have made it even easier to detect potential threats and contraband, while integration with external information systems and logistics networks allows customs and border protection personnel from around the world to easily take a “layered” approach when it comes to securing their nation.

One thing that you’ll never hear a checkpoint called, however, is petite.  The sheer amount of technology needed to properly detect threats and contraband coupled with the space needed for cargo and vehicle screening means that checkpoints are often sprawling, congested affairs.  And this is not even taking into account the room required for operators and enforcement officers to their jobs.  To put it bluntly, checkpoints could stand to lose a few pounds.

But border checkpoints can’t afford to cut technologies or staff to reduce their footprint because doing so could allow dangerous materials, contraband or even outright threats to enter the country unchecked.  This creates something of a paradox for customs agencies: How can they reduce the size of a checkpoint to ease congestion and sprawl without sacrificing operational integrity?


One of the primary methods of eliminating checkpoint sprawl and shrinking the overall footprint of a border crossing operation is by way of integration.  The list of materials for which an average border crossing must scan is massive, and includes conventional weapons, explosives, narcotics, nuclear materials, contraband goods and smuggled humans.

Even simplified into a short checklist, the security screening of vehicles, travelers and cargo can be an intensive, overwhelming task.  Detecting each discrete category requires a separate set of screening procedures, from the technology and software algorithm used to the actual procedures undertaken by checkpoint personnel, increasing the possibility that illicit or dangerous materials may slip through.

To combat this problem, customs and border protection agencies need to look at integrating as many of their scanning equipment and procedures into a single, streamlined process.  Luckily, the security screening technologies of today are rapidly evolving in this direction, uniting people, vehicle and cargo screening technologies into modular, almost plug-and-play solutions with unprecedented interoperability. 

For example, some emerging products focus on integrating screening with the wider security operations of a border crossing.  This allows for the creation of a nerve center, which unites CCTV/access control information, screening information and passenger/cargo manifest data for a completely unified view of the checkpoint environment while eliminating extraneous and wasteful processes.


Going hand-in-hand with integration, another method to shrink checkpoint footprints is through the use of flexible technologies.  While integration of existing technologies is of obvious import, finding new technologies that can combine the work of two or more existing pieces of equipment can go a long way towards reducing checkpoint size.

As mentioned earlier, detecting specific categories of threats and contraband, like radioactive materials or organic threats, requires specialized equipment.  But emerging technologies are combining these detection methods, eliminating the need for existing redundant machines. 

Radiation and nuclear detection has been a huge thorn in the past for checkpoints because the screening machines were incredibly sensitive and had to be isolated from other scanning equipment, particularly machines that utilized X-rays.  But now advances in security screening have unified the two at-odds technologies, allowing for the detection of nuclear materials and standard contraband/threats via a single scanning machine, greatly reducing the space required in a checkpoint.

Cargo and vehicle screenings are also headaches for customs agencies; not because of the tasks themselves, but because of the space required to properly conduct these procedures.  To remediate this, customs agencies need to implement vehicle and cargo screening technologies that can adapt to their specific throughput and space needs on a daily basis, perhaps acting as a pass-through system on one day, but easily converting to a gantry-style system on the next to ensure that as traffic through the checkpoint ebbs and flows, the agency can react as needed.

The Blueprint

It might seem ridiculous, but the final method of reducing checkpoint sprawl is to understand the exact mission of the site.  Is a customs agency primarily concerned with truck/cargo traffic?  Is contraband the primary concern, or is there a legitimate need for narcotics and weapons detection?  Are nuclear materials a possibility?

It’s easy to say, “Just look for everything, all the time,” but in practice, it’s not that simple.  Even with integrated, flexible screening technology, customs and border agencies need to have a primary goal in mind for interdiction, based on the checkpoint’s history and their own intelligence gathering.  The “scan it all” approach does work for many high-traffic, high-threat border crossings, but it certainly doesn’t contribute to cost-savings or a reduced checkpoint footprint.

One issue that many agencies simply do not consider when implementing a checkpoint is the exclusion zone required for most X-ray scanning machines, a no man’s zone around the screening area, completely dependent on the power of the X-ray.  This power must scale with the type of scanning needed, with dense cargo trucks requiring far more power than scanning a civilian car.

Without understanding the true goal of the checkpoint, “scanning it all” can lead to a mammoth footprint, solving none of the problems facing the agency and contributing to many new challenges due to congestion.

Checkpoints are a key piece of the border security puzzle, not only for keeping threats from entering the country but also interdicting counterfeit and illegal goods.  An effective border crossing doesn’t have to be a sprawling affair; by leveraging integrated, flexible technologies and engaging with a specialized private partner, customs and border agencies can downsize operations, cut congestion and improve traffic throughput, all without endangering their borders.

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