New Northern Border Camera System to Avoid Past Pitfalls
By Stew Magnuson
DETROIT — The Border Patrol will be begin work this year to install a series of cameras north of Detroit with one motto in mind: keep it simple.
The agency official in charge of the program said the goal is to avoid the pitfalls of Project 28, a similar effort to place cameras on the southern border.
The Secure Border Initiative’s Project 28 program finally came into operation this spring after years of delays. The goal was to set up a series of cameras and high-tech sensors along a 28-mile stretch of desert south of Tucson, Ariz., and have them transmit live, streaming video to agents in their vehicles.
The streaming video capability was never achieved as the agency could not find a means to transmit high-bandwidth video into vehicles in a remote location that lacked communications infrastructure.
Project 28 suffered several delays, cost overruns and management upheaval at both Customs and Border Protection and at lead contractor Boeing Co.
Greg Lambert, Border Patrol special operations supervisor and local project lead for the Northern Border Project, said the series of 11 cameras that will be installed beginning this year on the St. Clair River will not attempt to integrate radar capability or try to push the images into Border Patrol vehicles.
“In this deployment we’re keeping it simple in the form of just day and night cameras on towers,” he said. Boeing remains as the lead contractor for the northern border project.
Unlike the southern border, there are few camera systems in place in the north to keep watch. There are a few cameras in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, which are being upgraded under the current project. There are also some older cameras in the Washington State area, but there are currently no plans to swap them with newer systems, Lambert said.
Each emplacement will have two day cameras and two night cameras — one set facing up river and the other facing down river.
Images will be sent to a local sector headquarters, where agents control the cameras. If an illegal entry is spotted, they will radio the location of the incident to officers in the field.
The cameras, built by L3-CE, will differ from cameras deployed along the southern border because of the extreme winter temperatures, he said. More robust pan-tilt-zoom motors are needed to break through winter ice.
“The cameras will be able to tell agents what’s going on, and exactly where it’s going on,” he said.
That’s important because of the complex terrain agents must deal with along the 37 miles of water that connects Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair. It’s relatively easy for smugglers to traverse here. Only a few hundred yards separate the two nations. But the U.S. side of the border is a patchwork quilt of businesses, parks, public and private land. Unlike the southern border where agents can patrol up and down a fence, they can’t drive their trucks onto a private residential lot. The agency also uses 25-foot boats, but they can’t be everywhere at once.
The video feed will be shared with the local Coast Guard sector headquarters in Detroit, but personnel there won’t be able to control the cameras. Since the two Michigan-based Department of Homeland Security agencies have similar missions — both patrol an international border that is almost 100 percent water — cooperation has been excellent, Lambert and Coast Guard officials said.
Capt. Fred Midgette, the Coast Guard’s Detroit Sector commander, said he sees utility for the cameras beyond capturing smugglers. If there is a search-and-rescue incident, they can ask the Border Patrol to turn the cameras to pinpoint a location. Or if someone illegally dumps pollutants such as oil, they can go back and review archived images to see who was in the area.
“I’m not sure if it will slow down smuggling and push it out to the sides, in which case we will see more activity in other places,” he said.
That may happen, Lambert said. The cameras are intended to act as a deterrent. The Border Patrol, when it has beefed up security in areas along the southern border, has seen smugglers move to other spots. In this case, they may move to more open waters where it is easier for local police, the Coast Guard or the Border Patrol to spot them.
“Frankly, we’re banking on the cameras having a deterrent effect, maybe not right away, but eventually, because they are going to work,” Lambert vowed.
Another challenge is allaying privacy fears among local residents.
“A large majority of the citizens in the area want border security, but they want it done in a sensible, non-cookie cutter way,” Lambert said.
“No one wants to be harassed when drinking a beer and fishing on the St. Clair River … I specifically live in the area where the cameras are being deployed and I don’t want cameras looking in my window,” he added.