After more than 12 years in operation, Airport Watch has become a North American-wide concept. Its early beginnings date back to 1999 when a partnership was formed at the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport between members of the Ottawa Police Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the airport authority, and a newly formed group of aircraft enthusiasts turned citizen volunteers.
All Airport Watch (AW) chapters operate as a partnership concept between volunteers, law enforcement and aviation business providers. Each volunteer group operates with an elected cadre of executives who coordinate the internal administration and liaise with authorities. All members have passed police background checks. They may take part in other activities in support of the airport authorities such as periodic FOD (Foreign Object Damage) collections. How each chapter is operated depends on the local conditions and unique requirements of each airport, with health and safety awareness being essential. It should be mentioned that approximately half of the AW volunteers are retired – with a myriad of life experiences to offer their local program. They team up with younger members, both sharing a common interest, aviation.
North American expansion and the IAWA
Airport Watch quickly attracted attention around the world. The program has been adopted in both Australia and Britain, and countries such as India, Spain and France have shown interest. The Minneapolis St. Paul (MSP) International Airport was among the first American airports to establish its own AW program in the United States.
The first bilateral meeting between Canada and the USA was organized by Officer Joel Vargas of the Bensenville Police Crime Prevention Unit in July 2010. More than two dozen U.S. law enforcement representatives attended an official Chicago Airport Watch introduction. In attendance were the FBI, DHS and TSA operating at O’Hare and Midway, plus the Chicago Police and other suburban agencies. This followed an introductory luncheon for 51 new AW volunteer applicants and police officials.
Chicago authorities were quick to recognize the advantages of a close cooperation with local aircraft enthusiasts and businesses to better safeguard major infrastructure. This was no small order given the dozens of law enforcement agencies that operate at, and around, the world’s busiest airport at O’Hare and neighbouring Midway Airport.
Given MSP’s very successful launch of their Airport Watch program three years ago, Sgt Alvin Cooper was identified as the national coordinator for AW start-ups in the United States. As part of the Chicago meetings, two representatives from the MSP Airport Police Department met with representatives from the Canadian side to establish a framework for new AW start-ups. Sgt Cooper’s efforts, combined with Canadian start-ups coordinated by RCMP Sgt Jacques Brunelle, were the first steps for the International Airport Watch Association.
With the new emphasis on a single North American organization, a revamped newsletter for the volunteers, airport authorities and airport police has also been launched. Reaching out still further, negotiations are ongoing for direct support from the International Association of Airport Seaport Police (or InterPort Police).
Origins and connections
Activities such as aircraft spotting with an emphasis on security originated in the 1950s with the (Royal Canadian Air Force) RCAF’s Ground Observer Corps (GObC) volunteers who were tasked with reporting unusual aircraft and surfaced submarines during World War II. As a tribute to the watchers of the GObC, Ottawa AW’s chapter insignia shares some heraldic traits with the original RCAF GObC badge. Likewise, each chapter has adopted its own insignia.
What’s in it for the spotters?
Why become involved in crime prevention while enjoying a hobby? Some extra time may be required, but it has been noted that a recognized citizen contributing to crime prevention has its benefits. Regular aviation-related activities abound for the various chapter volunteers, most of which would not be possible for a hobbyist. These have included tours of airline maintenance centres, aircraft production lines, tower operations, aircraft aprons, military facilities, flight simulators, police aviation facilities, fixed-base operators (FBOs), and more. They often participate in police week displays, and assist in charity fund raising in an organizational capacity. Each chapter holds monthly or quarterly meetings, usually at an airport facility. Administration functions are noted, but the meeting focus is on aviation photography shows and guest speakers, making the meetings well attended. Not to overstress, but the uniqueness of each airport dictates how each chapter is formed and run.
The volunteers are not trained in security functions per se but are provided with behaviour awareness sessions in order to better recognize suspicious activities. Of course, volunteers do not take the place of airport security, they are intended only as a supplementary resource.
Their alertness is not limited to terrorism; it also includes smuggling and assistance to the public, lost or stolen articles, access gates with unsecured locks, wildlife on runways and other criminal activity.
The Toronto AW members, for example, provide about 10,000 hours of extra security annually, and dozens of reportable incidents were responded to by police or airport security officers. As a result, a number of volunteers have been commended for their alertness.
It is clear that concerned citizens and authorities both recognize the benefits of effective community involvement. It is truly a win-win situation, with benefits flowing both ways. Such crime prevention programmes really do provide for safer homes and communities.
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© FrontLine Security 2011