Border Patrol integrates GIS into its electronic barricade

ISIS eventually will integrate geospatial data with information from other intelligence databases to help patrol officers secure the borders, the Border Patrol's Michael Gambale says.

Rick Steele

Geographic information systems are crucial to the Border Patrol's plans for electronically reinforcing its 11,000 members patrolling the nation's boundaries.

The patrol already uses several commercial GIS applications. But now the Border Patrol, an agency of the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection division, within the Border and Transportation Security directorate, seeks to weave its GIS and other perimeter systems into a seamless electronic web.

The patrol is upgrading its existing electronic systems at the border via an emerging project known as the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, sometimes referred to as the America's Shield Initiative.

'ASI will have a major geospatial component,' said ISIS program manager Michael J. Gambale, an assistant chief in the Border Patrol. 'We're working with the CIO's shop on geospatial technology.'

All of the patrol's 20 sectors around the country now are involved in collecting geospatial information or have varying degrees of GIS capability, Gambale said. The agency uses applications such as ArcView from ESRI of Redlands, Calif., and MapInfo Professional from MapInfo Corp. of Troy, N.Y.

ISIS eventually will integrate the geospatial information with information from other intelligence databases to help patrol officers secure the borders, Gambale said.

The technology upgrades will be welcome, said Rich Pierce, a senior agent in the Tampa, Fla., Border Patrol station and executive vice president of the National Border Patrol Council. The council, a union affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees, represents about 10,000 nonsupervisory Border Patrol agents.

'When I go to work, I am running a 450-MHz PC,' Pierce said. 'It doesn't want to run the programs we use to process aliens and run report checks. Many of the sensors along the border are Vietnam War-era stuff that has needed to be changed out for a long time.'

Pierce said patrol agents have been complaining about the lack of equipment. 'If they tell us they are going to upgrade the computers and sensors, that is what we need,' he said. 'A lot of the sensors are set off by animals and trains. You get a lot of false positives.'

Pierce said the intelligence alerts that patrol officers now receive generally are vague and outdated. 'We need to be connected to the intelligence databases because we get very little of that,' he said.

Foreigners who attempt to cross the borders illegally, and the smugglers who assist them, have become increasingly sophisticated. Along some parts of the border, smugglers use firearms, spray paint, rock-throwing and other means to destroy or disable video cameras that were set up to detect border crossers.

'The computers in my station in Tampa should have been upgraded three years ago and never were,' Pierce said.

DHS plans to spend $87 million on ISIS next year to extend existing electronic monitoring systems all along the border. The patrol began fielding electronic systems along the border in the early 1990s in sections of particularly intense illegal crossing activity.

Last year, the patrol caught about 900,000 illegal border crossers, down from 1.1 million two years ago. Part of the reason for the declining numbers is the agency's policy of pushing its enforcement capability closer to the edge of the border to make crossing difficult, officials said.

Patrick Flynn, the patrol's contractor technical representative for ISIS and a senior Border Patrol agent, said the agency plans to select a contractor team to act as the systems integrator for ISIS. 'The government in the past has gotten into trouble being the integrator on major projects,' he said.

Project planners expect to incorporate communications capabilities provided by the Integrated Wireless Network national voice and data radio system into ISIS.

The Border Patrol held an industry day in early August to invite vendor comments on how best to structure ISIS. Agency officials plan to frame a request for information from vendors and use the feedback to plan a request for proposals around the beginning of 2005.


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