Airport lacks security tech, experts say

July 23, 2007

Oakland International Airport lacks video surveillance technology used in other airports, such as the ability to quickly retrieve images of intruders and a system that alerts authorities when people enter secure boarding areas through exit lanes.

That technological gap may have contributed to the airport's three apparent security breaches this year, security experts, airport authorities and sources who supervised security efforts at the airport, said.

In the most recent incident, on July 10, an aide for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office reported seeing a man entering the "sterile" Terminal 1 boarding area through an exit lane guarded by the federal Transportation Security Administration.

Searchers from the Oakland Police Department and the Sheriff's Office were given only a verbal description, as the terminal lacks the ability to retrieve video images to track down intruders.

Nor did the TSA have "enough information to necessitate an evacuation" of the terminal, said administration spokesman Nico Melendez.

The situation was nearly identical to two previous incidents at Oakland -- one on Jan. 5 and a second on Feb. 15 -- when people entered secure areas without being screened for weapons and authorities could not locate them.

That is something Steve Irwin finds troubling.

Irwin, who has been a mid-level airport manager and supervisor at both Oakland and San Francisco international airports, is now a security consultant based in St. Louis.

He believes the Oakland breaches are the fruit of airport

management's reluctance to invest in the kind of security systems needed to both prevent such incidents and deal with them if and when they occur.

With what little surveillance capability the airport does have, Irwin said, "It appears they can't translate it into, 'There's a guy in the crowd, let's get him.'"

Melendez said the airport's Terminal 2, which is used exclusively by Southwest Airlines, does have the ability to capture images that can be used to help track down intruders, but Terminal 1 does not.

Nor does the airport have what's known in the industry as a "counterflow detector," which analyzes video images and transmits an alarm when someone walks into the secure area through an exit.

San Francisco International Airport installed motion detectors to perform that function about 10 years ago, airport spokesman Michael McCarron said in an e-mail.

"If someone should enter the exit lane from the wrong direction (from the non-secured side) an alarm sounds, lights flash and a photo is taken of the individual," he said. That digital image "can either be printed out or sent electronically anywhere in the terminal."

San Francisco also has had three incidents in which people entered the secure area without being properly screened, but none of those were through exit lanes. In only one case did authorities fail to locate the person and, following security protocol, order a terminal evacuation and re-screening of passengers, McCarron said.

Oakland's Terminal 1 does, in fact, have closed-circuit television surveillance, said Steve Grossman, who runs the airport for the Port of Oakland as its director of aviation.

"We actually have a CCTV system throughout the terminals. That is in the process of being upgraded as we speak to gain more capability," Grossman said.

Asked why searchers for the recent intruder were not provided with images from that system, Grossman said the system can't always provide them.

"It depends upon where the incident is, what's going on and how much of it we capture," he said. "When we capture an image, I do believe we can print it out. It's a question of, in any one location, do we have a camera there to capture it."

As for a wrong-way motion detection system like San Francisco's, Grossman said, "We don't have it now.

"In some ways, I wish I had their money. But we will be looking at it for the future."

Installing a state-of-the art video detection system for an airport the size of Oakland could cost around $3 million, including computerized analysis that can differentiate between animals or people approaching the facility's perimeter, people moving in the wrong direction at an exit or even someone acting oddly, said Gadi Talmon, co-founder of Agent Video Intelligence, an Israeli firm that has installed such systems at Washington's Reagan National Airport and the Houston Metro transit system.

That would include a minimum of 500 cameras, each with its own processor to do initial analysis that decides whether to send high-resolution suspect images to a more powerful central computer for further analysis.

"The bottom line is that nobody is watching all those monitors," Talmon said. "It's just impossible to monitor all those hundreds of cameras. Computerized systems can detect events according to predetermined rules" and then quickly convey suspicious images to airport authorities.

Oakland Police Lt. Ed Poulson led the department's security contingent inside Oakland's two passenger terminal until the department redeployed his officers to improve policing in high-crime city neighborhoods July 14.

He said the airport security environment was already complex, with city police on the inside, county sheriff's deputies on the outside, federal passenger screeners from TSA and privately contracted security guards.

Poulson did not bemoan the lack of high-tech surveillance, saying his officers could perform well with the tools they had, but said it could certainly help the new force of sheriff's deputies.

"Anytime you can use technology to assist law enforcement, that's always a good thing," Poulson said. "Look at how effective the technology has been used in England," where widespread use of video surveillance helped British authorities crack subway bombing plots in 2005.

At Nashville International Airport, which has less than two-thirds of Oakland's annual volume of 14.4 million passengers, has video surveillance throughout its two terminals in case someone bypasses security, explained Duane McGray, who recently retired as head of that airport's security.

"They would capture the individual's image, then send that digitized photograph to an e-mail address (on personal digital assistants carried by airport police officers) instantly, so that each of the officers can pull it up and have it in their hand as they look for the individual," McGray said. He added, "Very rarely has someone gotten through; probably less than one every year or 18 months."

There was one time when the digital images came in handy, however, said McGray, who is now executive director of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network. "What they did do once is they caught a shoplifter."

Contact Erik Nelson at or (510) 208-6410. Read the Capricious Commuter at .