Remote Surveillance for Port Security in San Diego County, California

Jennifer Yopp

On October 12, 2000 the USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers while refueling at Yemen’s Aden harbor. This attack provided evidence of the type of terrorist event that could take place at the Port of San Diego, with its location near an international border, vibrant commercial cargo and cruise ship business, and substantial U.S. military presence. If an attack happened in San Diego, officials also felt it likely that a terrorist event in the Port would involve the transportation of contraband or undocumented persons into the U.S.

In 2002 the Department of Homeland Security initiated the Port Security Grant program, which provided funds to further secure maritime transportation infrastructure through technology, risk assessment and management, training, and exercises.

The San Diego Harbor Police, a department of the Port of San Diego that is responsible for providing law enforcement in the Port, applied for and received grant funding from the Port Security Grant program for several projects over the past ten years to deploy surveillance cameras around the San Diego Bay.

The fourth largest port in California, the Port of San Diego encompasses two maritime cargo terminals, two cruise ship terminals, 20 public parks, four recreational boat launch ramps, and commercial real estate. The Port also manages San Diego Bay and the surrounding tidelands.   Based on threat assessments after 9/11, the Harbor Police, with approximately 125 sworn officers, needed something better than physical patrols of the Bay to monitor activity around the recreational launch ramps and within the cargo and cruise ship terminals.  They considered coverage of these recreational ramps and commercial terminals to be the highest priority and sought a technology to increase their surveillance capability throughout the Bay, but especially in those areas.

Technology and operations solutions
The initial project funded through the Port Security Grant program in 2007 was for 27 cameras: six pan/tilt/zoom cameras at the recreational launch ramps and 21 fixed field of view, infrared (IR) cameras in the cargo and cruise ship terminal areas. The cameras monitor fence lines, access roads, ramps and docks. For the recreational ramps, the Cameras at the recreational ramps provide a full field of view of the ingress and egress points and capture the vessel registration number displayed on the sides of a boat and the number of individuals on board. Commercial cameras primarily view the regulated marine terminals perimeter and access points.

Over the years additional cameras have been added. In some locations, the cameras have been combined with physical barriers or a triggering mechanism to alert an analyst or one of the pan/tilt/zoom cameras to focus on a particular area. Improved change detection algorithms—the video software's ability to detect changes in its field of view—and the additions of cameras and other hardware to the system continue to advance the its surveillance capability and increase its reliability. For example, in some places, the Harbor Police have installed a fixed camera with a wide field of view for maximum coverage mounted on the same pole as a pan/tilt/zoom camera for honing in on specific areas and improved resolution. 

Analysts in the Joint Harbor Operations Center (JHOC), (a communications center at the U.S. Coast Guard base that brings together federal, state, and local agencies) monitor the live data feeds around the clock for the Harbor Police. They also monitor Harbor Police radio networks and if an incident is in progress, can focus cameras on the incident location. Likewise, if the analysts see suspicious behavior on the data feeds, they inform the appropriate law enforcement agency. Video feeds are shared in real time with multiple entities (e.g., California National Guard, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, cruise lines, and harbormaster) who have special interests or jurisdiction in and around the Port of San Diego.

When an incident occurs, regardless of whether it comes to analysts’ attention through officers in the field or from their own surveillance, the analysts contact dispatch and communicate directly with officers on the ground. The cameras and analysts provide additional eyes for officers in the field, and can help guide law enforcement to an incident location. This capability leads to faster response times and better situational awareness. The cameras provide round-the-clock coverage, and the recorded data can be used as evidence in any subsequent investigations or court cases.

Outcomes and advice
While the video surveillance capability means fewer people are needed to walk a perimeter, it doesn't necessarily mean fewer personnel are needed; trained analysts have to examine real-time footage to detect suspicious behavior and make decisions about whether law enforcement should be alerted. More cameras mean more footage, and may mean that more skilled analysts are needed to monitor the video footage and police radio networks. The desire to see everything can be overwhelming without a sufficient number of analysts, leaving critical areas just as vulnerable as they were before cameras were implemented.

More cameras may also require additional storage capabilities. The video recording and storage infrastructure is the most critical component of the surveillance technology. Surveillance footage is considered security sensitive information (SSI) and is kept for two years, requiring extensive data storage capacity and secure methods for transferring and storing data. Connecting cameras via fiber optic and data storage easily surpasses the cost of the cameras.

Herein lies the greatest challenge in implementing security cameras: balancing the number of cameras with both the number of analysts needed to adequately monitor the footage and the resources needed to store the data.

The Port of San Diego IT Department is involved in the selection and maintenance of cameras, helping to minimize issues with the integration of new cameras. The Harbor Police prefer to select stable, proven camera technology rather than the latest technology and note that cameras need to be replaced roughly every five years.

The cameras were well received within the port and have been integrated fully into the port’s security and operations; they are essential for the Harbor Police to fulfill its mission. The additional security infrastructure has helped to alleviate the concerns of the port’s customers and helped the Port and the Harbor Police to build trust with them as well.

For more information: San Diego Harbor Police Chief John Bolduc,