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Protecting Airports

Security is still a challenging goal to meet because of accessibility

Airports are the nation’s most highly secured public facilities. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has spent billions of dollars protecting airports and planes. Scanners, metal detectors, guards and no-fly lists have done a remarkably good job at stopping terrorists from turning airplanes into weapons. Yet airports are still a major security challenge. Major hub airports openly welcome more than 200,000 passengers daily and large areas of all airports of any size remain easily accessible to the public.

Domestic and foreign terrorists have caught on and now target those public, less-secure areas. Long lines of people throughout the front half of an airport offer easy targets.

In January 2017, a lone gunman needed less than 90 seconds to kill five people and wound six more at the Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood (Fla.) International airport. Another 53 people were taken to the hospital for injuries suffered in the ensuing panic. The shooter, a former national guardsman, checked a gun and ammunition before boarding a plane in Alaska. He collected it in the Fort Lauderdale baggage claim area, went into a restroom to load the weapon and came out shooting.

The answer to keeping these areas safe incorporates the same best practices used to secure other facilities, such as hospitals and stadiums that attract large crowds.

Protecting the Perimeter

Perimeter security is the first line of defense. The best place to stop intruders is before they reach their targets. Many airports install perimeter fencing with fiber optic sensors. Light is sent down the length of the cable and sensors analyze the light’s behavior to detect intrusions. The system can interface with software controlling video surveillance cameras and other devices to help first responders formulate a response to alarms.

Fencing should be set in three-foot deep trenches—then filled with concrete—to prevent anyone from digging their way into the airport property. Any trees near the barriers must be removed so they cannot be used to climb over the fence. Waterfront airports can take advantage of anchored and floating fences consisting of stainless steel rope and the same fiber optic cables.

Terrorists also use vehicles to deliver an explosive payload. Specialized fencing incorporating the same type of steel cable used to stop fighter jets on aircraft carriers can halt a 15,000-pound truck traveling at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. This type of fencing is given a K-rating, a measure of how much kinetic energy—or speed plus weight—it can resist.

Gates can be fortified to withstand a high-speed vehicular impact and should be designed so airport police can open them after remotely verifying the identity of the driver and passengers. Video intercoms are ideal here as they allow security personnel to safely view and have two-way conversations with drivers. If the visitors are approved, the gate can be opened with the touch of a button. A card reader can be either separately mounted or embedded in the video intercom to allow employees to use a cardkey to enter without assistance.

Other measures, such as bollards—sturdy concrete blocks or barriers—can stop vehicles and protect terminal entries and pedestrian pickup points from taking a direct hit. Bollards can be designed to serve as planters or benches to blend into the airport’s landscaping plan.

A few countries have even set up security perimeters several hundred yards from the terminal to inspect incoming vehicles. Those with suspicious passengers or contents are directed to a designated site for more thorough inspection.

Outdoor Emergency Stations

Parking lots and garages may not be a typical terrorist target, but they are the site of sexual assaults, robberies and thefts. Emergency stations offer assistance and an immediate connection to airport police. Stations are typically topped with a bright blue light making them easy to spot from a distance. Once the station is activated, the light begins to flash, drawing additional attention to the site. Built-in audio intercoms immediately connect worried patrons with airport police.

Stations equipped with video intercoms provide police with real-time video. Intercom cameras activate when a call is placed from the station or when called by the master station typically housed in the security command center. Mobile apps allow an officer to use a smartphone or tablet to remain in control of the system while on patrol. The units can also be integrated with existing airport surveillance cameras for a broader view.

Emergency stations offer several other advantages, can be scaled up to 5,000 or more units, which may also include indoor emergency stations and intercoms.

Video Surveillance

Video surveillance cameras provide airport police with real-time views of the facility. Recorded video is useful in reviewing incidents and identifying criminals. Numerous studies have shown just the presence of cameras is enough to deter many criminals. IP-based cameras can connect to the airport network and be monitored by multiple departments such as police, customs, fire and paramedics, baggage and operations.

Cameras need to be positioned at all public and employee access points to provide video of everyone entering the airport grounds and buildings. They should also be installed at check-in areas, boarding gates and along terminal corridors. Light-rail or other modes of transportation between terminals require cameras, as do baggage claims areas. Cameras providing views of restricted areas help ensure only authorized personnel gain access.

Indoor and outdoor signage throughout reminds people they are potentially under surveillance.

Access Control

All sensitive areas, such as ramps and operational areas, restricted from the public require access control. These areas, known as Security Identification Display Areas (SIDAs), may use keypads or card readers and video intercoms to limit access to only authorized employees. In some areas, electronic beams may alert police to someone entering hallways leading to restricted areas.

Highly secure areas, such as tarmac entries and security command centers, may require a second identity authenticator. Typically, this would be a biometric reader using iris, fingerprint or facial recognition technology.

All employees should carry a proximity cardkey with a photograph serving as identification. These should be worn anytime the employee is working on airport property. Simple or complex rules can be applied to each employee record listing those areas, times and days a person is authorized to enter restricted areas. Badges may have a different colored stripe further indicating access privileges.

Video intercoms can also limit public access to interior offices such as executive management, storage facilities, computer rooms and the security command center.

Mass Communications/Policies

The lack of a mass communications plan can lead to public confusion and panic. During and immediately following an emergency, real-time information is vital to calm people and control the situation. This information must be available throughout the entire facility. With the addition of speakers and horns, wide-area paging is possible using an airport’s video and/or audio intercom system.

Having an active shooter plan is also vital. All airport employees, from air marshals to volunteer information assistants, should engage in regular drills to prepare for the worst. During an emergency, passengers and visitors look to those individuals for guidance.

In late April 2017, a South Florida congresswoman announced plans for legislation to improve first responder communications and worker training as well as require all airports nationwide have mass evacuation plans. Many politicians and security experts were critical of officials’ response to the Fort Lauderdale shooting. Thousands of passengers were held on the airport’s tarmac for six hours with little or no information. Some sat on planes for hours.

The activities of some airport workers have drawn attention. A February 2017 report, “America’s Airports: The Threat From Within,” by the Congressional Homeland Security Committee majority staff, reported many of the 900,000 U.S. airport employees can bypass security measures typically experienced by passengers. Increased gun and drug smuggling and other security breaches linked to employees are raising concerns about insider threats. Airlines and airport personnel needing access to secure areas should be held to the same stringent standards passengers face.

Layers of Security

Everyone recognizes the need for strict security at the nation’s more than 3,300 public-use airports—about 450 of which are under federal supervision and control. Congress has passed laws and TSA and industry organizations have developed policies regulating aviation security.

The sheer numbers of people in a busy airport and the potential dangers from a lone wolf or team of terrorists make securing an airport one of society’s biggest s’s security challenges. Yet, at the same time, airport security needs to be managed with the same basic approach as any large commercial or government facility.

The highest degree of security comes from layers of security—integrated components each enhancing the performance of the total system.

The security industry is working on new tools—or layers—to get people through checkpoints faster. Better scanners will have a higher throughput, while allowing passengers to continue wearing their shoes, belts and light jackets. Other equipment will detect liquid explosives and other dangerous materials.

As terrorists look for ways to beat security, our industry must continue working with federal, state and local officials to make the airport experience pleasant, convenient and most of all safe.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Security Today.


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