As the debate continues in the Department of Homeland Security over the future of the so-called virtual fence, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher said he casts a wary eye on one-size-fits-all technical solutions that are designed to help agents keep tabs on the lands that separate the United States from Canada and Mexico.
“Anyone out there who thinks they have a technology that is going to take the place of a Border Patrol agent, I don’t want that,” he said at the National Defense Industrial Association homeland security symposium.
After years of technical glitches and unfulfilled promises in the Secure Border Initiative’s efforts to deploy a network of cutting edge cameras, sensors and a communication backbone to tie them together, the program is in limbo. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ordered a review of the program earlier this year, which has not been completed.
Fisher would not reveal what he has advised Napolitano on SBInet. However, experiences during his first years as an agent in the mid-1990s taught him some valuable lessons about technology and human nature.
As a young agent, he was one of the first to pull duty in the control room where he monitored the feeds from an early generation of cameras that were placed on towers along the southwest border.
Suddenly agents, who were previously dedicated to the art of “cutting signs” — looking for telltale indications that someone had crossed the border — and relentlessly tracking intruders, were radioing in and asking him to use the cameras instead.
“They became very complacent in a very short amount of time because they wanted technology to do their job,” Fisher said.
“I am an advocate of technology … but there is not one thing that I can think of that is going to work in every environment against all threats, that we’re going to say, ‘Give us a 1,000 of these, or give us 200 of those, and our work will be done,’” he said.
Meanwhile, Fisher lamented the absence of one technology piece that his agents could use — radios that can connect with nearby local law enforcement and first responders.
The service has recently converted its radios from analog to digital, but they don’t give agents in the field interoperability with state and local partners, he said. In emergencies, the Border Patrol and local entities do communicate for a short durations.
“There isn’t anything I see that is going to fix this, because everybody owns a piece of it,” he said. It’s more of a policy problem that a technology problem, he said. Federal leadership has not brought all the state, local and first responder communities together to solve the problem, he added.