Industry Professional

Stopping Tragedy in its Tracks

Ferromagnetic detection catches terrorist before they get too close

Security expert Jim Viscardi discusses with Security Today how to detect weapons of mass casualty well before a shooting incident can occur. When people attend events at an arena, a concert venue or a sports stadium, they are ready to enjoy a good time, and a large crowd often adds to the excitement.

Unfortunately, these gatherings have also proven to be vulnerable targets for terrorists and others looking to sow chaos and incite panic. Security personnel do all they can to identify these threats before tragedy strikes—but in a large crowd this is incredibly difficult and, by the time a potential evildoer gets to the front door or gate, it can be too late.

Event organizers have responded to past attacks by improving their security methods and adding more metal detectors, police and other security personnel. Despite these efforts, a would-be terrorist can still manage their way to the venue’s entrance and pose a mass casualty threat.

Q: You believe that security at large-scale events need to be improved. What do you see as the limitations of current strategies?

A: Conventional walk-through metal detectors are usually what you will see at events. They can successfully detect metal objects, but only screen five or six people each minute. These are usually placed just outside or inside a venue to screen people as they enter the facility. This means that they, by nature, create queues of people, which are at the root of the problem for most venues. Walkthrough detectors are often used in tandem with hand wands to secondarily screen anyone who sets off an alert.

Under this paradigm, a terrorist is already close enough, and among a dense enough population of people, to cause significant damage. Bad people do not need to actually enter the venue; they just need to get close enough to cause a large number of casualties. We have already seen this happen at events like the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, which occurred right at the security point. In a situation like that, a terrorist is surrounded by dozens—or possibly hundreds—of people and is just 10 to 20 yards away from the critical asset: the interior of the venue.

As an extra layer of security, facilities will equip their toolkits with everything from drones to closed circuit television and patrolling security to identify suspicious behavior. You can get an idea how these additional methods have intrinsic limitations. They are observational and, by design, observational security methods do not provide concrete, detection-based evidence that someone has a weapon. It’s only natural that human factors compound the limitations, introducing greater degrees of error and chance. Even if a threat is identified, it might be too late to stop it.

Q: What makes the far perimeter of a venue an ideal place to screen for weapons of mass casualty?

A: A terrorist is often trying to get closer to the immediate perimeter of a venue to inflict the most damage to large groups of people waiting to get in. Farther away, event attendees are walking toward the entrance and, thus, are more dispersed rather than standing in clusters or lines.

Q: What is the best technology for screening an outer perimeter?

A: Ferromagnetic detection systems, or FMDS, make this type of advance screening possible. FMDS uses passive sensors that evaluate disturbances in the earth’s magnetic field caused by a magnetic object moving through its detection zone. The technology can be honed to only detect large magnetic masses.

This is a key point, in that the technology does not detect metallic mass, rather it detects a magnetic signature. Everything else is invisible to it—people, clothing, backpacks, purses, belts, watches and cell phones. Trying to hide a weapon is not a feasible option for an evildoer in this scenario, as nothing can be used to shield the threat of a large magnetic signature with FMDS.

Q: How accurate is FMDS?

A: Very accurate. First, there is no false alarm rate with FMDS. It is designed with complex scientific methods to function simply. This means that a magnetic signature typical of an assault rifle or bomb is moving through the detection zone, or it is not. Those are the only possible outcomes. Because the technology will never miss something the way a human would, it is more effective and reliable than observational security methods. It is also important to note that the system only works on moving objects, meaning it is immune to environmental noise, such as rebar, that would trip up conventional metal detectors.

Q: You mention the concern for security personnel in avoiding queues. How does FMDS help with queues forming?

A: FMDS allows between 50 and 60 people to be screened per minute, without having to stop and divest their possessions as they walk toward a venue. It does not need people to be organized into lines or groups; it simply detects a magnetic signature on anything that passes.

Q: Is an FMDS system difficult to set up and integrate?

A: The system runs on batteries, so there is no need for an electricity source, as with a walk-through detector. It can be placed on just about any form factor (a pole, a stand, etc.), which gives security personnel flexibility. They can create a wide perimeter around a venue without worrying about portability or a power source, and screening can be as obvious or as concealed as personnel prefer.

There are FMDS products that can be integrated with other systems such as CCTV or access control to be part of the broader security network.

Q: So, can this approach replace traditional screening techniques like metal detectors and hand wands?

A: That is not the goal. FMDS is meant to close a gap in mass screenings at large events by expanding the secure perimeter and creating a highly accurate way to detect weapons of mass casualty farther away from large crowds and venues. It does not replace screening for smaller items, necessarily, and all large venues should use a layered security solution that also includes security guards, walkthrough metal detectors and hand wands.

Q: Do you think FMDS will be a common part of security screening at large-scale events in the near future?

A: New technologies are being developed now to help fight against evolving threats and make the world safer. FMDS is certainly one of these technologies. By providing a foolproof method of detecting weapons of mass casualty before terrorists get too close to an event venue, FMDS offers a way to better protect large events, making them less vulnerable and keeping people safe.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Security Today.

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