Bridge, Tunnel Safety Measures Enhanced

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2002-09-10

Bridge, Tunnel Safety Measures Enhanced

Whether its highway patrol helicopters swooping nearby or armed guards standing at the ready, keepers of the nations bridges and tunnels have increased security since Sept. 11.

But beyond physical security, some have also begun to take extra technological steps to prevent and respond to terrorists and or other threats.

The most common response has been to expand the use of cameras to monitor bridges and tunnels—as done on such famous bridges as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. But cameras for monitoring isnt the only answer. One tunnel at a crucial border crossing between the United States and Canada also has concentrated on how it communicates in the event of a threat or incident.

The Detroit & Canada Tunnel Corp., in Detroit, has been testing a new alerting system developed by wireless messaging software provider Simplewire Inc. Called the Border Message Information System , it allows the organization to alert law enforcement, public service agencies and others about everything from threats, disruptions or even simple traffic delays in the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. The system was set to go live in late August or early September, said Neal Belitsky, vice president of operations at the Detroit & Canada Tunnel Corp.

"After 9/11 we realized that the number of public safety/law enforcement agencies that needed to know what was going on at the border was staggering," Belitsky said. "We also were seeing that when something happened and there was important information to go out, a third of the population never got the information [and] a third of them got inaccurate information."

To tackle the problem, the new system allows agencies and groups to be alerted to potential problems through SMS (Short Message Service) to their pagers, mobile phones and wireless PDAs, as well as to Web-enabled computers, Belitsky said. About 50 agencies and individuals will gain access to the system with about two-thirds having the right to both publish and read alerts. The agencies can send out alerts through a secure Web site.

In one incident after Sept. 11, 2001, a local newspaper called the tunnel authority after hearing on a police scanner about a potential threat on the Detroit River; the tunnel operators and many of the government agencies hadnt heard of the issue. With the new system, the dispatcher putting out the police radio call could also send an SMS alert to key agencies, Belitsky said.

In the testing so far, Belitsky has already seen improvements in the dissemination of information.

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"Were able to get then information either to an individual or to an agency, and we were able to get it to folks accurately and timely, and it was invisible as far as the [international] border was concerned," he said

When it comes to other new technology on bridges and tunnels, though, officials are guarded about offering details with the threat of terrorist attacks still looming.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York manages key bridges such as the Verrazano Narrows and Triborough bridges and the Brooklyn Battery and Queens Midtown tunnels. Spokesman Tom Kelly said it wasnt worth the security risk to publicly disclose the types of technology being used to better secure and monitor the bridges.

"Pre Sept. 11 we might have thought about it, but now absolutely we wont talk about it," he said.

In San Francisco, the landmark Golden Gate Bridge has faced heightened security since last years terrorists attacks on the east coast. That included two "super-heightened" alerts, one for three days in mid-August after word of a terrorist threat to crash a plane into the bridge and earlier in July after Spanish authorities found a videotape of potential terrorist target believed to be from al-Qaida members that included footage of the Golden Gate bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge Highway District has upgraded and expanded its system of surveillance cameras on the bridge, said district spokeswoman Mary Currie. But she declined to offer any more details on technology steps taken since Sept. 11.

Bridges across the state of California, as in other states, have heightened physical security. The California Highway Patrol has stepped up its patrols of bridges such as the Golden Gate and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, said Sgt. Wayne Ziese, public information officer for the CHPs Bay Area command, in Vallejo, Calif. Officers also have begun using handheld thermal imaging devices, or night vision, to allow officers to see better. The CHP also has budgeted for more aircraft for its patrols, Ziese said.

"Obviously the real threat from terrorists has been well documented since 9/11 and the responsibility has been put on us to make safe to the best of our abilities these key transportation links," he said.

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