As New Threats Rise and Budgets Fall, DHS Looks for the Simple, Cheap and Interoperable

John M. Doyle

In the 12 years since its creation after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been responsible for protecting Americans from terrorism, transnational organized crime and natural disasters, but new threats continue to spring up.

In the past year, DHS confronted unexpected challenges like the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa and the massive influx of illegal immigrants, most of them children unaccompanied by adults.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson recently cited his biggest threat concerns. One is the lone wolf, self-radicalized gunman with no known connection to terrorist groups. Johnson said that is the threat he worries about most because it’s the hardest to detect and "could happen on very little notice." The recent attacks on uniformed soldiers in Canada underscored the danger. Johnson also mentioned concerns about Americans returning from fighting in the Syrian civil war, radicalized by Islamist extremists and armed with the skill sets to commit mayhem.

Those threats, and ways to deal with them, were discussed Oct. 6-9 at Homeland Security Week in Washington sponsored by IDGA.

The DHS has launched community outreach programs in U.S. communities with large Muslim populations. That kind of connection to the community is invaluable in heading off terrorist plans before they get rolling, said Capt. David Azuelo, commander of the Tucson Police Department’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division.

"If we don’t understand the problems, we can’t possibly understand the solutions," Azuelo told the audience at IDGA’s Homeland Security Week conference, adding that police have to get off their computers and out of their patrol cars and interact with the people – especially in areas that are home to new immigrants. He also cited several information collecting and sharing systems among federal, state and local police to head off home grown terrorism like the Boston Marathon bombing.

Leaders of one of DHS’s biggest components, Customs and Border Protection, said congressional budget cuts require them to look for equipment and technology that will help them do their job with less people and, for less money. "We’re about managing risk now," said U.S. Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher.

He said only 8 percent of his $32 billion budget is available for acquisition. There isn’t time to go through a lengthy procurement process for the best possible technology, he said, adding rugged, simple-to-use, off-the-shelf technology is what’s needed on the border.

So if companies think they have a great solution to the border security problem they should offer it for field testing at company expense. "If the Border Patrol agent can do his or her job better, if it’s cost effective and if they [agents] don’t break it in a shift, then you’ve got my attention," Fisher said. Assistant Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Randolph Alles doesn’t have much to spend on acquisition, either. Only about 20 percent of his $720 million average annual budget is available for acquisition, and $44 million of that amount is committed in Fiscal 2015 for two King Air 350 twin-engine Multi-role Enforcement Aircraft, said Alles, who heads CBP’s Office of Air and Marine (OAM).

A 10-year OAM recapitalization program runs out in Fiscal 2016, and while he develops a new plan, Alles wants to link the sensors already carried by OAM’s 250 aircraft and 290 maritime vessels.

Wolf Tombe, CBP’s chief technology officer outlined several areas where new technology could help. Tombe said DHS was dealing with massive amounts of data from biometric identification systems like fingerprints.

"The real ideal capability is to use all of them – fingerprints, facial recognition and iris scan – to see if they all match" the people presenting themselves for entry into the United States at airports, seaports and land border crossings, Tombe said. Right now fingerprints are the core biometric technology. Facial recognition "is in its early stages" of use and iris identification and verification "is being evaluated," he added.

"The U.S. border is tens of thousands of miles and it is impossible to cover with a human presence alone," Tombe said. Cross-border tunnels used by drug, gun and people smugglers are getting bigger and more sophisticated with lighting and their own sensors and communications, Tombe said, adding that CBP "would much rather send a robot" to investigate a tunnel than endanger an officer.

He noted that the best sensor still remains a dog’s nose and DHS has more than 1,000 detector dogs to sniff out explosives, drugs and other contraband. A dog’s nose can detect scents as faint as 5 parts per trillion – far beyond what any mechanical sensor can achieve. One technology Tombe wants to study more comes from Israel. It’s a sensor system on a dog’s collar that analyzes a dog’s biometrics – including its bark – to determine its mood or stress level, even when out of sight.

For more information about the conference, visit