Eyes in the sky up and running along border

Published on Thu, Apr 11, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Eyes in the sky up and running along border

By Meg Olson

U.S. Congressman Rick Larsen was in Blaine last week as the Border Patrol flipped the last switch, bringing on line the camera surveillance system watching the border. “This is a 21st century solution to an age-old problem,” he said.

“I don’t have to have a car sitting there now,” explained chief patrol agent for the Blaine sector Ron Henley as he and Larsen faced a bank of 38 monitors showing images of the most vulnerable sections of 45 miles of open border from Blaine to the Cascades. “As you can see it’s quite a force multiplier. It opens up areas I don’t have the resources to be in right now.”

On April 4 the last fiber optic connections brought on line the final three camera locations in the string of 32. Each pair of cameras, one for day use and an infrared camera for night use, is mounted on a 50 foot pole and articulated to keep an eye on a large area.

Data collected by the cameras is sent back to the control center at Blaine sector headquarters, where communications assistants have added watching the cameras to their other duties, which include dispatching for local law enforcement and answering 911 calls, monitoring border sensors and dispatching border patrol agents. “I can bring images from two cameras down to these monitors,” said communications assistant Greg Faubion. “On one it can show where the agents are coming in and on the other where the illegals might run out and I can say, hey, they’re going that way.”

Construction problems delayed startup of the system by close to six months, confirmed deputy chief patrol agent John Bates. As the cable was laid through Blaine it left a trail of broken water mains, power outages and rutted roads in its wake that are now being tidied up. “The contractor has agreed to complete a list of all the cleaning up and loose ends,” said Blaine public works director Grant Stewart. “They we’re going really fast to meet their deadlines and now they have come back and, as they’re working through that list we have a much more positive view.”

The budget for the camera system was $5 million. “It’s gone over budget a little,” Henley said, due to added system features. He said further refinements would include digital recording of the camera feeds and a link between motion sensors and cameras. “When the sensor goes off they’ll know which camera it’s linked to,” he said. “That way an agent doesn’t end up running out there to find out it’s a dog,” Faubion added.

Bates said the agents’ safety would be improved by having the camera system in place. “Before, you knew if a sensor went off, but you didn’t know why,” he said. “With the cameras we can tell them there are six people, they just got into a truck. There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing something happened, but not knowing if you passed them on the road.”

Recording camera feeds will allow the border patrol to analyze patterns of activity at specific locations. “If we see a trend, we can address that,” Henley said, adding that was particularly important along the northern border, where illegal activity was more organized than on the southern border. Recorded data can also be used as evidence in prosecuting people and drug smugglers.

The next challenge for the Blaine sector will be getting the extra personnel to respond to what Henley expects will be a surge in interceptions with the cameras’ help. Congress has approved 40 new border patrol agents for the Blaine sector, which stretches from Alaska to Oregon. A temporary detail of 20 from the southern border is filling the gap until the new agents can be hired and trained or transferred. The local headquarters has also been funded for two more communications assistants, but Henley said he’ll need more. “To watch cameras around the clock I need 12 full-time equivalents,” he said. “It’s great headlines to have more border patrol out there, but it doesn’t make any difference if I have to pull them in to do support work.”

Henley said the sector is also getting a new helicopter in addition to a fixed wing aircraft and another pilot. “It comes with all the bells and whistles, including night vision,” he said of the MD600 helicopter. “It’s a state-of-the-art helicopter.” The helicopter will patrol the border from the air and, unlike the fixed wing plane, it can get agents on the ground if the need arises.

“This really sends a message to people who want to cross the border illegally,” Larsen said of the new additions to the border patrol’s arsenal. “The chances of getting caught just increased.”.

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