Airport security: left of boom

30 April 2018 (Last Updated April 26th, 2018 10:35)

US start-up Elerts has devised an app that empowers passengers to alert authorities in a fast, accurate and safe manner if they witness an emergency or terror incident. Jerome Greer Chandler finds out how the app can be adapted for airports and whether it has the potential to change the safety and security landscape.

Airport security: left of boom
Folks on the ground see it first. Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Security professionals have a name for interdicting potential incidents before they blossom into full-blown blowouts: ‘left of boom.’ The problem is, “Airports have…emergency notification systems typically described as ‘right of boom’,” and are basically reactive contends Ed English, CEO and co-founder of Elerts.

Already up and running on some 16 major ground transit systems in the US and Canada, including Atlanta’s MARTA, Dallas’ DART and San Francisco’s BART, Elerts’ ‘See Something Say Something’ (SSSS) set-up dramatically cuts the amount of time it takes for the smartphone-equipped transit riders to translate their observations into action.

“It’s feet on the street,” says English; the people best positioned to see something untoward, something out of place or just plain suspicious. “Folks on the ground see it first. The authorities [may] not even know about it yet – whether it be an active shooter, a fuel leak or a fire.

“They can notify the authorities in less than 20 seconds using our smartphone app,” he explains. So why not just call 911 and tell a dispatcher what you’ve seen? Such a route can entail being quizzed by 911 dispatch, “getting interrogated with ten to fifteen questions,” says English.

“People don’t want to do that. It slows them down. [They] don’t like talking on the phone anymore. The younger generation wants to communicate with data. They don’t want to make a phone call. They just want the authorities to be aware, and then go about their business,” he adds.

Notifications “Go to one place first – the airport security operations centre to a dispatcher. Then, with a couple of clicks it can go to different agencies. We’ve got a TSA button on our management console, so dispatch can make a quick decision if it’s something that needs to go TSA [Transportation Security Administration] right way,” English says.

Quick response: observe, detect and mitigate a threat

A close case-in-point is an instance on a MARTA train between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International (ATL), the world’s busiest airport. Looming on one of the train cars, there for all to see, was a big, black bag with an ATL tag on it. A rider was suspicious. They snapped a picture of the looming luggage and sent it to MARTA. Turned out it was just an abandoned bag. English says this is an example of proof of concept that “when people can report safety concerns discreetly, they’ll do it.”

There’s a growing connection, figuratively and literally, between mass rail transit and airports. The former delivers trains full of travellers and airport employees to airports every day. English recounts another train-to-plane proof of concept moment: “We’ve had an event where a person threatened to get off the train and kill people at the airport. There are some hot-headed people headed to the airport on the transit systems.” Forewarned, transit and airport police can respond to such occurrences quickly.

“Elerts’ See Say app-based system is significantly less expensive than a single K9 unit.”

On its website, Elerts puts the dilemma facing airport security this way: “Like a sucker punch, you cannot stop what you can’t see. Situation awareness is crucial to airport security teams. They must be able to quickly observe, detect and mitigate a threat. Security can’t respond until they know where response is needed. Even 30 seconds of warning can change the outcome of an airport attack. But cameras, TSA and police are spread thin; they cannot do it all, alone.”

That’s where Elerts contends the power of crowd sourcing comes into play. While citizens and travellers play a real role in reporting transit rail incidents, English say it’s airport employees that are the ones it envisions being empowered by its See Say app.

Elerts’ See Say app doesn’t suppliant well-trained canines. But English says it puts the ever-popular, widely-used K9s in perspective when it comes to cost. “I was a little surprised [as to] how much an airport spends on a K9 unit. It can run $160,000 per year. Elerts’ See Say app-based system is significantly less expensive than a single K9 unit.” That cost to airports is scaled. Flat rate pricing pegs the cost to how large the airfield is.

Airports ready to jump on board

As of this writing, Elerts had yet to land an airport contract. But English believes that’s almost ready to change.

English and fellow co-founder Chris Russo, a 30-year first responder in the fire services, have been “in conversation” with 20 airports in the US, mostly Category X and Category 1 facilities – 30 of the 60 largest airports in the country. “There’s a large CAT X airport in the Northwest that I believe will be on board in a matter of a few weeks,” asserts English. “We have another large airport in the Southwest that’s similarly poised.”

The reason airports may be ready to move on this stem from “increasingly complex security concerns,” such as perimeter breaches, weaponised computer laptop bombs, terminal evacuations and rogue employees is twofold. At the same time the concerns pile up, airport authorities, according to Elerts, “are faced with declining security budgets and slow-moving government roadmaps to modernise the security infrastructure.” Not to be alarmist, but “this is a perfect dorm for disaster to strike,” maintains the Massachusetts-based corporation.

“Elerts pitched its product to four judges and a roomful of airport executives at the event.”

Another element prompting airports to consider linking up with Elerts is the See Say app’s showing at the 17th Annual Aviation Security Summit in Arlington, Virginia. Along with five other hopefuls, Elerts pitched its product to four judges and a roomful of airport executives at the event, which was sponsored by the American Association of Airport Executives, the Department of Homeland Security and TSA. The parade of products vied with one another during the aptly-named ‘airport shark tank’ segment for recognition as the event’s most innovative new product. Elerts’ See Say mobile app won.

Where there’s an unmet need there are folks such as Ed English and Chris Russo willing to fill the gap. “Chris and I were approached by a mutual friend about eight years ago. He had this idea of using smart phones to communicate in an emergency. I’ve been an entrepreneur and run another high-tech software company. We were protecting computers. With this company, I’m protecting people.”