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Border Patrol puts its surveillance system along the Northern border to good use

Video tower on
Gull Island

It was a cold and dark evening in October 2010 as a group of U.S. Border Patrol agents peered at their new video monitoring screens in a “camera control center” located at the Selfridge Air National Guard base, northeast of Detroit. They were watching a series of video images that were being fed from about 44 different cameras that had recently been mounted on 11 towers strung along a 37-mile stretch of the St. Clair River, which serves as the international boundary between the United States (on the western bank of the river) and Canada (on the eastern bank.) The cameras were watching for illegal immigrants and smugglers, who have been crossing into the United States in this region ever since the days of Prohibition.

Suddenly, the border patrol agents saw a small boat zip across the 300-yard-wide river, land on the U.S. shore in the small city of Algonac, meander out of the camera’s viewing range and blend into a populated neighborhood. “They saw some people jump out, on the U.S. side of the river,” recalled Gregory Lambert, the assistant chief of the Border Patrol’s Northern Sector, who described the incident in an exclusive interview with Government Security News. Lambert wasn’t sitting in the camera control center that evening, but he had been intimately involved in the Border Patrol’s development of this prototype video surveillance project along the U.S.-Canadian border, the identification of the tower sites, the selection of the day/night and pan-tilt-zoom cameras, the engineering work and the construction itself.

The U.S. Border Patrol has vast experience using a wide variety of surveillance tools along the U.S.-Mexican border, but far less experience along the Northern border, where an abundance of dense foliage, the presence of sparkling rivers and lakes which can interfere with a camera’s optics, and extremely cold weather can pose all sorts of technical challenges for a surveillance effort. “We’ve had problems with circuit boards that can’t take 10 or 15 degrees below zero,” explained Lambert.

In the past the Border Patrol has installed a few cameras near Buffalo, NY, and Blaine, WA, Lambert noted, but nothing as large and complex as the more-recent installation of cameras along the St. Clair River near Detroit.

As soon as the Border Patrol agents in the monitoring center lost sight of the intruders, they directed their fellow agents to Algonac to search for them, and quickly contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and the police departments in Algonac and Clay Township to help in the search efforts. Within 10 or 15 minutes, Lambert recalled, three illegal aliens – carrying illegal guns, jewelry and cash – were interdicted in Algonac. Had the chase lasted any longer, the Border Patrol would probably have notified the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well, said Lambert.

“We are new to the surveillance game up here along the Northern border,” said Lambert, “and this was a relatively good success.” Soon after the cameras were installed, the Border Patrol noticed a spike in apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the St. Clair River, but the number of such incidents has since subsided -- perhaps because the would-be intruders have learned that cameras have been installed to keep an eye out for them.

“We’ve had a lot of ‘turn-backs’ – people who decide not to cross the river – and others who now wear masks,” said Lambert. “They don’t want the cameras to see their faces. Smugglers always take the path of least resistance.”

The Boeing Company served as systems integrator for the project, Lambert told Government Security News. Boeing procured about 22 “bundles” of cameras – technically called Wide Area Long Range Sensor Systems – each of which consisted of daytime cameras supplied by Hitachi and nighttime cameras from L-3 Cincinnati Electronics, along with pan-tilt-zoom cameras. The WALRSS bundles were supplied by PVP Advanced EO Systems, Inc., of Tustin, CA. A similar combination of cameras is carried on the U.S. Army’s Stryker armored vehicles. “In my humble opinion,” said Lambert, ”the combination of cameras supplied by PVP provided the clearest video images I’ve ever seen.”

Typically, one camera bundle was mounted on a tower facing upriver, and another bundle was mounted on the same tower facing downriver, Lambert explained. The Border Patrol generally leased the land on which it erected its towers; sometimes on private land, sometimes on city land, occasionally on a water treatment facility or another public site, and once on a power plant owned by Detroit Edison.

In perhaps its most ambitious installation, the Border Patrol contracted for a “directional bore” (instead of drilling straight down, the contractor drills laterally) for about 4,500 feet to bring electricity out to tiny Gull Island, the site of the southernmost tower, which sits in Lake St. Clair, east of Detroit. That effort may have been the longest directional boring effort in Great Lakes history, Lambert told GSN.

Now that the installation is complete, the Border Patrol is enjoying the benefits of its new surveillance system. The successes in the Detroit area might be replicated elsewhere.