Airport Watch

Perimeter security at ­airports had been of growing concern to the policing community before a program called Airport Watch (AW) was created in 1999. In partnership with the RCMP and the Ottawa Police Service as a crime prevention tool for the Ottawa International Airport, it took about 36 months of dedication – by officers and dozens of volunteers – to develop effective protocols and to ­standardize regulations.

Today, the AW program works effectively due to the strong commitment of community volunteers working with airport authorities and police, not to mention increased inter-agency cooperation. By 2004, AW had expanded to Toronto, Calgary, Montreal-Trudeau and Mirabel, Edmonton and Kelowna airports. Over the years, the program has received formal recognition from the federal Minister of Transport, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA).

Based on the Ottawa model, the International Airport Watch Association (IAWA) was formed in 2010 in the Chicago suburb of Bensenville, Illinois. The group also held its first Airport Watch Summit that year, bringing together community-minded officers from the Chicago Police Department, Bensenville Police Department, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Police Department, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to help further the concept.

As the program inevitably spread into the USA, many, including the FBI and TSA saw the usefulness of such a security plan at the largest airports.  Minneapolis-St. Paul, two smaller Minnesota airports, and Chicago’s O’Hare all came onboard in 2008. Subsequently, a Phoenix unit started up in 2011 and, with the strong support of the MIA authority and Miami-Dade Police, Miami International Airport joined in 2014. Other U.S. majors and another Canadian airport are currently in discussions to begin their own programs. 

Miami Airport Watch group and Miami Airport Authority, with Miami Dade Police.

Establishing an Airport Watch unit certainly involves its own unique challenges – each airport is distinctive, both in physical layouts, regulations and management styles, even operating language. Naturally, the association works through this, and helps local groups custom tailor to their specific needs. As an example, U.S. Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany had the “Eagle Eyes” community awareness program already in place but also saw value in the Airport Watch program so, three years ago, the USAF assisted them in adding a local AW unit to the mix. They now have a core group of known air enthusiasts who provide “eyes and ears” at the fence line, working in support of the military police.

During a 2004 international aviation security conference held in Ottawa, informal talks on AW attracted significant interest. From that connection with Sussex police attendees, British airport policing units and the British Airports Authority (BAA) began considering the AW concept. Using largely the same general concepts as their North American counterparts, the UK began their own program at London-Gatwick under the Sussex Police as part of their already extensive list of crime prevention programs.  From there AW expanded to other London airports and then northwards to more than a dozen other airports.

Thousands of Airport Watch volunteers in the UK now provide the “eyes and ears” to the authorities in a trusted, professional, community relationship.

Toronto members of AW, with their ever-present cameras.

Easily identifiable in their jackets and hats, Airport Watch volunteers have all passed background checks and have been issued formal identification by the airports they frequent. Although this grants no privileges or access, they are better-known to the facility operators to whom they report suspicious activities or safety concerns.

In Australia, police carry out pro-active, community-based policing similar to North American and British police organizations. Since 2005, the Australian Federal Police (AFP), in cooperation with state police, have been exploring the best way to increase airport employees and improve community relations at their designated international airports.

Following the wide-ranging Wheeler Report of 2005, aviation security authorities in Australia began to implement 17 recommended major improvements to increase the effectiveness of information sharing and to improve their threat assessments. One of many positives that emerged from this was the eventual AFP funding for the creation of a national Airport Watch program at every international airport in Australia.  This facilitated closer working relationships with airport employees and provided instruction such as Behavioural Analysis and Active Shooter Awareness training while promoting the reporting of suspicious activity to the airport police.  Members of communities surrounding the airports, including aircraft enthusiasts, have made such calls as well.  In the AFP model, the police organization provides group administration for the AW group – a notable difference with other programs.

Although the use of volunteers help local costs remain low in North America, national funding for Airport Watch in the U.S. and Canada has remained elusive. However, each organization shares its lessons learned and the best of these ideas seem to be moving into a common, effective direction where best practices become more widely known. This results in improvements to the basic framework of airport community-based policing.

The IAWA, which supports all airport crime prevention programs, is informally comprised of several policing and airport representatives plus AW volunteers. The association is an advisory group that can also offer advice on forming new AW units by sharing SOPs, recruiting techniques and suggestions.

Awareness training of airport employees and local Airport Watch volunteers is very much encouraged as a positive way for police to directly and effectively engage the communities. The volunteer-based AW model utilized in North America is not reserved for larger airports. Kelowna, in British Columbia’s interior, is a case in point. It is a mid-sized airport with a very proactive management style that has increased perimeter security in a way that promotes positive community spinoffs. Numbering about 45 volunteers so far, they represent all areas of the local society and work closely with the community-based RCMP detachment. The group also assists during Search and Rescue exercises and other community events.  The growing facility has even provided the AW unit their own office, conveniently overlooking the main apron.

Other security concepts include the RCMP Coastal-Airport Watch, where rural community awareness is promoted to report suspicious activities at small airfields along border areas and isolated coastal regions to deter smuggling activities. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association also promotes security awareness in the general aviation sectors through its Airport Watch unit. The USAF’s “Eagle Eyes” airbase community reporting, mentioned earlier, is another proven program.  The IAWA promotes all of these, and can work with your airport – large or small – to help identify options that may work best locally.

Toronto AW annual airside tour hosted by GTAA during arrival of an inaugural Hainan Airlines flight.

The recruiting of aircraft enthusiasts has never been an obstacle for any airport, as they are regular visitors in any case. Many are also very good photographers, and can often use their own camera equipment to record events at the fence line as they occur.  It is important to note, however, that they do not take action into their own hands – their motto is, “Observe, Record and Report”. Being registered as an AW volunteer means acceptance at the perimeter and a responsibility to follow established guidelines and procedures. Some airports even engage the volunteers to do foot patrols inside the terminals and parkades once awareness training has been completed. Again, they report suspicious activities by cell phone or radio and do not take action themselves.

Outer perimeter patrols can sometimes be problematic, depending on a given airport’s layout, with much of it covered by bush and trails that can exceed a dozen or even hundreds of square kilometers. Having AW volunteers in the area helps as a deterrent. In many countries, airports utilize a software program to identify areas of threat to low flying aircraft and to better manage security patrols in the area, especially in times of heightened security and reduced resources.  Called SAM-PRAS, this program was created by Cunning Running Software based in the UK. Effectively mapping out the outer perimeter using the latest technology, it provides for more effective deployments and even includes variations based on weather and time of day. In use in three of the four Airport Watch program countries: the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, the sophisticated SAM-PRAS software is strictly operated by the assigned authorities.

In times of need, AW volunteers can be asked to visit certain areas of the field to report any activity especially during arrivals of higher risk flights such as presidential or military aircraft. The combined effort brings an awareness to help identify users of standoff weapons, rifles, MANPADS and even laser pointers. At their airports, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also provides hands-on awareness training to AW volunteers, teaching them to recognize components of standoff weapons, including MANPADS, while informing them of their total operating envelope, which can be more than a dozen kilometers from the runway.

The IAWA Summit coming up in July, will also mark the 15th anniversary of the start of the program at the Ottawa International Airport. This will be the third such international conference, with Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Police having hosted last year’s successful program.

AW members hosted by USAF at Burlington, Vermont, view F-16 take-offs and landings by 158th Fighter Wing.

With sponsors such as SAS Analytics and the InterPort Police Association, the attending authorities and AW volunteers are sure to increase their security awareness through informative presentations on procedures, national security and evolving ­technologies.

Jacques Brunelle, a 29-year RCMP veteran, can be reached at: airportwatch@gmail.com
Police and volunteers will meet in Ottawa during the International Airport Watch Association Summit on 11-12 July 2014.
© FrontLine Security 2014