From CCTV to escalators, McCarran Airport's system is no-compromise security
From CCTV to escalators, McCarran Airport's system is no-compromise security

Oct 1, 2001 12:00 PM

Clark County's McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas was the seventh busiest airport in North America and the 12th busiest in the world in 2000. McCarran first installed CCTV cameras 17 years ago, when its annual volume was around 10 million passengers per year. Now, with nearly 37 million passengers annually, McCarran is expanding the role of CCTV to take advantage of new capabilities offered by digital video recording systems.

There are several aspects to McCarran's CCTV deployment:

  • Four separately monitored CCTV systems are deployed: passenger screening, anti-theft, airport safety and crowd control, and federal inspection for immigration and customs.

  • McCarran's own electrical shop staff installed and maintains the systems.

  • Police chain-of-custody procedures are in place for the handling of the anti-theft system's recorded videotapes.

  • Motion-activated digital recording is being implemented for specific areas to minimize search-and-review time and to maximize recording capacity.


McCarran's leisure market passengers carry cash and credit cards as well as purchase gifts and souvenir items, so they can be attractive targets for theft. It's one reason McCarran has been thorough with regard to CCTV deployment at critical locations. McCarran recently renovated the Federal Inspection Services (FIS) facility at Terminal 2, the charter/international terminal, which includes U.S. Customs and Immigration agencies.

Camera placements in the FIS building were designed using a "no blind spots" approach, so that any point in the inspection facility can be observed from three different angles.

In many instances, the better camera coverage, the faster offenders can be identified and apprehended.

The anti-theft system's recording units and videotapes are kept under lock and key. Only certain Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers and McCarran service technicians can access the recorders. If there is a security incident, a Metro police officer reviews the tape. If the officer determines the tape may be needed for criminal prosecution, special procedures are followed. An officer takes the tape to the Metro police facility for booking as evidence. The tape is subject to the same rules for handling as any criminal evidence.

"We have cameras that point straight down at the passenger's belongings, as well as cameras that capture the passengers and personnel at the checkpoints," says Metropolitan Police officer Bruce "Bruno" Choureiri. The cameras are in plain sight to act as a deterrent.

The Metro police, using a combination of live surveillance and the anti-theft system CCTV, cracked several international theft rings that attempted to operate at McCarran. Theft at the airport has been dramatically reduced, and in most cases the offenders are caught almost immediately and, when confronted, they return the items taken.

Nearly all offenders opt for a plea rather than face a court appearance where their videotaped actions would be presented as evidence.

Forensic evidence handling is an example of how the McCarran systems are tailored for operational needs. The anti-theft system features 30-day recording because theft of passenger items is not always reported on the same day it occurs. Thirty-day recording also allows the police to scan back to check on familiar faces ¡ª to help detect and identify persons who are casing the airport over time with possible criminal intent. The passenger screening system is monitored by the checkpoint screening personnel. It provides 20-day recording, which is sufficient for management of checkpoint personnel and resolving questions regarding passenger belongings.

The airport control center is the dispatch and alarm center for the airport, manned 24 hours a day. All requests for police and fire emergency response and maintenance are channeled through the control center. All alarms are also monitored for smoke, fire, security, and tram malfunctions, and proper parties are notified for response. In addition, the center provides the proper notification during an emergency, and monitor video cameras throughout the airport.

Earlier this year, on one of McCarran's busiest days, airport personnel reported to the Metro Police at the airport that someone had entered the airport off the street and climbed up a one-way escalator to a main terminal gate area. The existing alarm system failed to detect the breach. The security personnel on duty had been distracted by passengers asking for assistance and did not witness the incident, which was recorded on videotape. Police were not able to locate the offender. As required, McCarran shut down and evacuated the nearby concourses so they could be thoroughly searched. All passengers were directed to the public side of the checkpoints to be re-screened.

McCarran's immediate response was to post security personnel at the tops of the four escalator locations. Given the limitations of human personnel and the demands of high-traffic days at the airport, McCarran decided to apply technology to strengthen security at the escalators in the future and to enable faster video search-and-response.

McCarran selected the lowest-traffic escalator location as a pilot project. They wanted to make the most effective deployment of technology, rather than rushing in to apply a quick fix.

Tony Bertone, McCarran's assistant director for facilities, developed the initial design for a system that would prevent unauthorized escalator access. It consisted of several components:

  • Wrong-way motion detection that activates an alarm signal

  • New doors at the top of the escalators that automatically close on an alarm signal

  • Video cameras positioned to capture unauthorized access attempts, including facial images of the violators

  • Digital video recorder that activates on alarm signal

  • Manual override switch for control, including a maintenance mode

  • Color printer

The appearance of the new doors would have to be consistent with the architecture and d¨¦cor of the terminal. Although the objective was improved security, there was also a financial incentive in the picture. If the escalator security could be completely automated, a one-time $25,000 expenditure (the actual cost for the installed technology at one escalator location) would replace a monthly $8,500 manned security expense.

Part of the challenge was adjusting the wrong-way detection to allow for real-world conditions. McCarran observed passengers using the escalators, and found there were valid reasons for passengers to turn around and go back up the escalators. Children would step back off the escalator and their parents would need to go back to get them. Passengers would drop belongings at the top of the escalator and not notice right away.

Technically, a passenger is considered within the secure terminal area until stepping off the escalator. However, passengers should not be allowed to return once they have gone far enough down that someone could easily hand them a restricted item to take back into the secure area.

A large warning sign was added at the bottom of the escalator with motion-activated red flashing lights and a recorded warning message. Anyone approaching too close to the bottom of the escalator will activate the warning lights and message. If a person steps off the escalator and moves backwards toward the escalator again, the warning is also activated.

The system was installed with the capability of sending an alarm signal to the Metro Police to facilitate an immediate response. This capability has not yet been activated, because there have been no intrusion attempts via the escalator to date. In the past two months, there have been a dozen incidents where the doors have closed automatically. In-person follow-ups and reviews of the recorded video show that in each case it was passengers, not intruders, who were turning around to go back up the escalator. Thus, notifying Metro Police at every violation would not be appropriate. Checkpoint security personnel are able to directly observe the escalators and manually initiate a Metro Police alarm if appropriate.

Part of the design includes a key-switch at the checkpoint that is used to activate and deactivate the escalator security devices and to place the escalator in maintenance mode. The escalator is cleaned during off-hours, at which time the escalator itself is turned off, the security doors are closed, and the warning devices are deactivated. Whenever the system is put in a mode where the warning devices and alarm signals are deactivated, the doors are automatically closed. This is required since manned security personnel are no longer stationed at the escalator.

Before the automatic system could replace the manned security at the escalators, McCarran had to be sure that the system would work under all conditions. They designed a test to verify its operation. Two McCarran employees who were also high school track team runners were tasked to run up the escalators, which were turned off to present the worst-case scenario and fastest ascent up the stairs. Taking a running start, the sprinters attempted to run up the stairs and enter the terminal gate area. They were unable to make it to the automatic doors before they were closed and secured by magnetic locks. The newly installed digital recorder and new CCTV cameras recorded the test, obtaining clear facial shots of the runners.

Having successfully implemented the escalator pilot project, McCarran is installing the same technology at the remaining three escalators.

"When you are installing automated technology, it's important to get it right," says Al Krisch, airport security administrator for McCarran. "That's why we performed extensive testing and observation as a pilot project before deploying the technology at all of the escalators.

"We wanted to maximize the strength of the security, but, at the same time, make no impact on normal passenger activity," he continues. "We knew that the technology was capable of doing what we wanted, but it wasn't possible to estimate in advance what the exact placement of the motion detectors would have to be, or what their sensitivity and range settings should be. Sometimes that aspect of a design can only be worked out through field trials."

One of the original reasons for installing independent CCTV systems at McCarran was to provide separate video monitors and VHS recorders based upon operational needs, and in particular, to enable chain-of-custody evidence handling for recordings from specific cameras. Current digital video recording technology employs secure encrypted digital signatures. This obviates the need for special custody procedures for tapes. Digital systems also support independent recording parameters per camera, eliminating the need for cameras to be on separate recorders; furthermore, workstation software allows cameras to be shared or segregated based on intended usage and access. As McCarran moves to high-tech digital recording, cameras will be able to be shared across a single airport-wide system, while still dividing control of viewing and pan-tilt-zoom cameras according to checkpoint, police, inspection and emergency operational needs.

McCarran plans to utilize a network-based video system that includes digital recording plus the ability to selectively transmit captured images to computer displays at the checkpoints. That system will include the ability to selectively transmit digital photos through the computer network to displays at each of the checkpoints and at Flight Information Display System (FIDS) terminals of affected gates. The FIDS terminal will display the picture along with a statement like this, "Have you seen this person? If so call this number."

McCarran also intends to expand the use of alarm-activated recording, and deploy video-based motion-activated alarming and recording where appropriate. As Krisch explains, "We want to maintain high levels of customer service. Technology helps us to provide higher levels of security and to improve the ability of our security personnel to assess situations and respond quickly."


Motion detectors

Federal Signal

Mag locks
Von Duprin

Electric door opener
Ingersoll Rand

Omron & PB

Digital recorder

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Power supplies

Recording message digital announcer

Overhead warning sign
McCarran Sign Show & Electric Shop

Ray Bernard is the principal consultant of Ray Bernard Consulting Services. He is a technical consultant and writer who has provided direction and technical advice in the security and building automation industries for more than 14 years.

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