Mounted Patrol Augments Security at Houston Intercontinental

Author: 
Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 
November-December
2009




Don't mess with Texas - especially its largest airport. George Bush Intercontinental in Houston has a volunteer regiment of more than 600 horseback riders patrolling its 13,000 acres.

"We have a large perimeter and a lot of undeveloped areas with dense vegetation outside the airfield proper," explains David Williams, assistant director of Public Safety and Information Technology. "That creates a unique challenge from a security standpoint. The Airport Rangers help us saturate the forested areas that are hard to reach with conventional methods."




Facts & Figures

Project: Volunteer Security Patrol

Size: 600+ horseback riders

Mission: Report suspicious activity on airport property

Cost: "Minimal" (expenses to establish and maintain trails; badge and train volunteers)

Benefits: Additional surveillance of perimeter; better access to heavily wooded remote areas; increased visibility of security

The idea for a mounted patrol developed after 9/11, when security officials at airports nationwide became concerned about attacks on commercial airliners from MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems). Rick Vacar, director of the Houston Airport System at the time, had previously turned down requests from horseback enthusiasts wanting to ride on airport property. He reconsidered, however, in an effort to make the remote areas of Houston Intercontinental unattractive to would-be terrorists with shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles.

Vacar was literally in the saddle when he officially launched the Airport Rangers in December 2003. Flanked by other riders, he held a press conference from atop a horse to announce the new program.

Clearing the Way

More than 50 miles of trails were cut for authorized riders. "It wasn't as onerous as you'd think," reports Williams. Trails run along the airport's 35-mile perimeter fence and into some of its most densely wooded areas and thickets. The airport also installed parking lots, picnic tables and portable restrooms at trailheads for the riders. Water troughs are available for their horses. Williams considers the expenses necessary to establish and maintain the program minimal, especially given the additional "eyes and ears" its riders provides.

In mid-September, Rangers had already logged nearly 260 official patrol rides in 2009. An even brisker pace was expected for the rest of the year, because many members prefer to ride in the fall and winter rather than during the hot summer or often-muddy spring.

Rangers have reported everything from trespassers and holes in the security fence to illegal hunting and dumping. They've also helped police recover stolen property and end a car chase.

"Horseback riders provide a highly visible, highly mobile security platform," notes Williams. "What started as a measure against MANPADS has ended up helping prevent community-based crime of all sorts. There's no way to measure the true impact of deterrence; but we know that the heightened visibility of security and increased situational awareness, especially on the outer perimeter, works."

He also appreciates the nature of the program. "Not everything has to be high tech," he says. "We use plenty of technology in airport security, but this is a great supplement. Plus, it's about as 'green' as you can get."

First Things First

Before riders hit the trails at Houston Intercontinental, they undergo the same security clearance as badged airport employees. "We check for criminal history, subversive behavior - all the standard vetting," explains Williams.

Registered Rangers also undergo training that outlines their duties: to observe and report. "They're instructed not to physically engage suspects or take other action," Williams stresses.

"They really emphasize that point," concurs Eldon Gizinski, the longest-serving Ranger. "Our role is to report anything suspicious to airport security and let them take it from there. That's why we're required to carry cell phones at all times."

Gizinski knows from experience how fast airport security responds: "The three or four times we've had to call, they arrived almost instantaneously. We've never encountered anything too serious on the trails. But I guess that's the beauty of the program: preventing something bad from happening in the first place."

Well-marked trails with plenty of intermediate signposts help security personnel pinpoint Rangers' specific locations, he notes. Their required blaze orange vests make them especially easy to spot.

"It's very organized, almost Marine-like," reports Gizinski, himself a former Marine. "Bush Airport does a tremendous job maintaining the trails and distributing accurate maps."

Riders must log in and out with the airport's security dispatch office, report what trail(s) they're riding and display personal identification badges and vehicle authorization decals at all times.

The random scheduling of the group is a converse advantage. "We have Rangers from all walks of life," explains Williams. "The working professionals typically ride on weekends, but we also have retired folks who prefer to be out on weekdays. The unpredictable nature of their patrols adds to their effectiveness."

Program participants range from 18 to 79 years old and are split fairly even along gender lines, reports Williams. The group includes pilots, engineers, construction workers, stay-at-home moms, teachers and retirees. Off-duty law enforcement officers are the only Ranges who ride armed.

"I've been a frustrated cowboy since I was a little boy," laughs Gizinski. "I think it's a wonderful program."

Community Connection

Airport officials consider the Ranger program a unique win/win situation: Riders gain access to well-maintained trails through pristine land with wildlife such as deer, coyote and feral pigs; the airport expands its security team exponentially without incurring attendant salary costs.

The airport also nets unforeseen community relations benefits. The Rangers promote the airport by riding in parades throughout the year and provide parking lot security during special events at Houston Hobby and Ellington Airport.

"Good trails are getting harder and harder to find," notes Gizinski. "I used to have 300 acres around my property where I could ride; now, I'm surrounded by development. The airport trails are just beautiful and very well maintained. People really appreciate the airport opening its land to riders. And it's nice to have a purpose when we're riding - to be able to provide a valuable service for the airport in return."

Subcategory: 
Security

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