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Ottawa Airport Watch (OAW) History  

Prepared by Casey Brunelle

January 2019

Humble beginnings: An opportunity for innovative community policing at airports

In August 1999, Cst. Jacques Brunelle of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) National Security Investigations Section (NSIS), based at Ottawa International Airport, was carrying out a daily perimeter fence line patrol along Alert Road. He stopped to chat with a man named David, who was standing outside of his Honda, looking at the airfield through his binoculars. After identifying himself, Cst. Brunelle recalled seeing this same person on other occasions around the airport perimeter.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to ‘move along’?” was the individual’s response, when Cst. Brunelle asked the spotter what he was looking for.

“No, not at all. You’re not doing anything illegal,” Cst. Brunelle stated, to the visible surprise of the man. Then, the police officer and the enthusiast—a career corporate executive in his day job—amicably parted ways for the day.

The next day, the two met again in another location. And over the coming weeks, more such “spotters” as they called themselves, were noted as being frequent visitors in and around the airport’s public access infrastructure. By early October, almost two dozen spotters had been encountered in this fashion. Cst. Brunelle began canvassing them, to see if they were interested in volunteering as a form of crime prevention at the airport, similar in concept to a neighbourhood watch. Each of the spotters readily agreed in principle, but some remained understandably skeptical, as the respective law enforcement agency of jurisdiction, the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police Service (OCRPS) and the uniformed RCMP before them, typically did not tolerate their prolonged presence—legal as it was. To provide both a practical and symbolic remedy for this, Cst. Brunelle began working with Cst. Gary Davidson of the Ottawa Police’s Airport Policing Unit. Cst. Davidson, a private pilot himself and a veteran police officer, readily agreed as to the potential for value-added to the airport’s safety and security by these well informed, well intentioned, and doubtlessly highly dedicated community members, who spent much of their off time along the airport’s fence line perimeter observing incoming and outgoing aircraft. Working together, the two officers began to formulate the conceptual policies and structure for a community-led organization of aircraft and airport enthusiasts that could serve on a strictly volunteer-basis as a complementary layer of “eyes and ears” in and around the public-access airport properties.

Following initial research, it became clear to Cst. Brunelle that there was no such practical example of such a venture—a crime prevention program that was dedicated to aviation security, was sustained and coordinated with support from a myriad of community, law enforcement, and corporate stakeholders, and one that utilized the unique knowledge and passion of private citizens, many of whom had cultivated life-long interests in everything-aviation and spent long hours in and around the perimeter. An opportunity for innovative community policing that could make a real difference on the ground had presented itself to the officers, and the foundations of the group began to be laid down in stride.

The establishment of the first Airport Watch program

A meeting was put together for the afternoon of November 25, 1999. The manager of the Shell Aerocentre FBO was kind enough to provide a meeting venue in their boardroom along with refreshments. Employees from the marketing and security services of the airport authority as well as officers from RCMP and OCRPS met with over a dozen seasoned aviation spotters in order to discuss the question of a community watch group based around aviation security.

This initial discussion was held with an open, positive, and constructive theme in mind. The community members discussed their respective backgrounds and experiences, their collective interest in aviation operations and plane spotting in particular, and there came from law enforcement and airport management an informed acknowledgement that these spotting activities could prove crucial to a sustained and proactive approach to aviation safety and security. The officers and airport authority representatives moved to facilitate a pilot program—the spotters were provided with the Security Operations Centre (SOC) contact information for the volunteers to report suspicious activity or potential safety issues. Since that first meeting, and in the successive weeks, what exactly constituted a “reasonable” call to the SOC remained an open discussion. Cst. Davidson broke down the concept to its very core tenet—stating, “If they have a funny feeling about someone or something, we’re just asking them to report it, so we can follow up on it.” After twenty years of community-driven crime prevention by volunteer spotters, this principle remains at the very heart of the Airport Watch program.

During the meeting, relatively more mundane but no less critical points were also thoroughly examined. It was asked by the volunteers that the airport provide an identifying card for spotters’ windshields, as a quick verification for patrolling airport security. A requirement for a spectator parking area along Alert Road was noted to the airport personnel, so that off-hours and weekend family visits by the public can be accommodated off the roadway for safety (what became the only public access parking lot adjacent to the golf course, along Alert Road). It was mentioned that recognition awards could be given to members who provide special assistance with various incidents or which spotter contributes the most time annually. Security notes would be provided to substantiate and document what spotters call in to SOC and an information list of the spotters and their vehicles would be provided to SOC to help identify spotters who lodged calls. The airport authority would also provide airport maps with runways and “Crash Route” gate numbers for volunteer orienteering. These were renamed as “Emergency Routes” years later.

It was noted, as well, by the spotters of the potential for damage caused by garbage (or Foreign Object Debris—FOD) that was occasionally seen blowing inside the fence line. Spotters were encouraged to call into SOC and report such instances that had potential to affect safe operations in and around the airport (including unlocked gates, the presence of wildlife, damage to electrical or roadway infrastructure, etc), along with suspicious activities by individuals. It was also agreed that a police background check would be provided for the volunteers by the law enforcement of jurisdiction, cementing the legitimacy and coordination with the fledgling formalized spotter community and establishing what then became known as Ottawa Airport Watch.

It was agreed that the spotters would organize periodic meetings to facilitate the social/networking aspect of spotting, to implement program goals, share aviation-related news and content, as well as to further coordinate and assist on ties with law enforcement and the civilian airport management. When discussing possible incentives to encourage spotter activity and coordination, the volunteers suggested vetted and guided tours of normally restricted portions of the airport as being one such potential activity.

In an article that appeared in RCMP “A” Division’s Information magazine for October-November 1999, Cst. Davidson stated that he had been impressed by the spotters’ dedicated involvement in the program. He admitted that he did not initially know what to expect from the volunteers as individuals. “At first, I was concerned about the fringe nature of their hobby, and a few wore some strange apparel,” he noted, describing one spotter’s badge-plastered, bright orange flight suit. “But as I got to know them, I discovered one is a former WWII paratrooper who jumped at Normandy and Arnhem, another is the museum curator of the National Air Museum, yet another was an RCAF pilot who had trained at Uplands during the war then was posted to Burma, and others were students and professionals. I realized what a high calibre of people they are.” Cst. Davidson went on to say, “That made me see how much they cared about the place, how they’re sort of informal ambassadors of the airport. That really floored us.”

Cst. Brunelle and Cst. Davidson hoped to give the program a sense of permanence during its first year by forming an enthusiasts’ club with its own logo and hats, and by raising more awareness of the procedures for proactively observing and reporting suspicious activity and safety instances to airport authorities. Ideally, the spotters would act as an effective early listening post, whose almost-ubiquitous presence offered a “soft challenge” to would-be trespassers, by simply being present, being observant, and being in touch with the appropriate authority. Whether the spotters were retired or currently employed, whether they were interested in aviation operations and aircraft specifically or simply enjoyed the time they spent outside and socializing around the airport, or whether they worked in and around the airport or took the long commute across the National Capital Region to visit its facilities, each and every such community member was now formally serving a real, tangible, and highly critical service to the airport authority, local law enforcement, as well as the broader safety and security of the aviation industry, itself.

“Getting off the ground:” Early days of Ottawa Airport Watch

Meetings were eventually arranged to be held at the Ottawa Flying Club facility, one of the first tenants at the Ottawa Uplands field, dating to 1927—the year Charles Lindbergh and his Ryan monoplane, the “Spirit of St. Louis” visited the Ottawa airfield. The Club was very enthusiastic to support Airport Watch and gladly allowed their facility to be used once a month by the group, which now numbered 22 active and vetted volunteers. Interest from the airport authority in the program continued to grow at a sustained level of cooperation, when in 2002 they nominated the concept for the Minister of Transport’s Safety Program of the Year competition. Earning “second place with honourable mention” by then-Transport Minister David Collenette, the award proved to be an exceptional accomplishment for the group, especially after just three years’ of operations. And it was in 2004, under the direction of Paul Benoit, CEO of the Ottawa International Airport, that direct collaboration and proactive cooperation with OAW truly began to take off.

On learning of the existence of the OAW group, the recently-appointed Mr. Benoit asked to join the group at their next monthly meeting at the North Field, and, after some welcoming comments about the program’s value added to the airport, invited the group to hold their meetings within the airport terminal facilities, which would include complementary breakfast, parking, and facilities for meetings. With that, airport authority-led funding for new apparel, including winter coats, AW website costs, and a formalized logo was approved. The AW concept was adapted in 2004 at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport where, with assistance of the RCMP NSIS, it became the second AW program. Working closely with Peel Regional Police and the GTAA, the program continued to expand to about 125 members and averaging 10,000 volunteer hours a year around Pearson airport. More airports would join the program in the coming decade, from Kelowna and Vancouver in the west to Halifax in the east, as well as with large and highly proactive groups operating in major airports in the United States.

The chosen logo for Ottawa AW was a tribute to the volunteers of the earlier RCAF’s Ground Observer Corps badge of the immediate post-WWII era, while also incorporating the traditional military intelligence starburst symbol. The red-tailed hawk used in the device was from a photograph of the raptor taken at the airport by volunteer and photographer-extraordinaire John Davies (who passed away in 2014). A number of original volunteers of the program have also passed and the tribute goes to them as well for this combined effort, not to mention recognition of many of them, who worked life-long careers in the public service, much of which was directly in the aviation industry.

Moving forward in the subsequent years, the numbers of volunteers at Ottawa grew to 36 active and vetted members, while as we approach the 20-year mark, costs of running the volunteer group were yet further streamlined, with most of the funding now coming internally from annual volunteer contributions. Formal meeting rules were implemented, with elections held for the executive positions every two years. As an example of the social/networking aspect of the spotting community, it should also be noted that many AW spotters are also volunteers with other aviation-related community groups, such as museums, Vintage Wings of Canada, the charity Plane Pull and security exercises at the Ottawa International Airport, as well as many other worthwhile community ventures.

Promotion and recognition of the concept in practice

In the early years, OAW operated alongside the direct collaboration of airport police, although eventually the airport authority became the program’s prime partner. Later on, the group’s point of contact was moved to airport security. For many years, the airport management hosted a Christmas reception to thank the volunteers for their time and dedication, with volunteer John Davies in particular, a former RCAF CF-18 technician, winning repeatedly the award for the most hours logged annually along the airfield perimeter. During this time of growth, Airport Watch formal updates were provided regularly by Cst Brunelle at Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network (ALEAN) conferences, the Canadian Airport Police Commanders’ Committee, and others relevant venues. This led to a number of new achievements for the program. Earlier, in 2002, just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, the RCMP selected the Airport Watch concept as an official Best Practice “For Airport Surveillance and Spotters’ Participation that enhanced Security in Airports,” as described then by Assistant Commissioner Patrick Cummins of “HQ” Division.

The concept was also adopted in 2002 as an official recommendation in the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Security Manual for Safeguarding Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference (Doc. 8973), in Appendix 16 under Defensive Measures and Procedures: “Ground procedures; recruitment of local residents who can assist by immediately reporting any unusual or suspicious activity.” Training was to be provided by the relevant authority under Appendix 7 of the Security Manual, in order to better develop a coordinated awareness training for the public and to speak at clubs and gatherings on aviation safety-related content. This strategy was implemented the year after 9/11, and was part of a comprehensive aviation security program as recognized not just for law enforcement, but also civilian management and staff of all airports on a global scale. Also in 2002, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) formally recognized the Ottawa AW concept, while its American counterpart, the—AOPA—implemented a national security awareness version of it for General Aviation airfields across the US, under the same name of Airport Watch.

Tours for AW volunteers over the years were not a regular occurrence and were not needed as a long-term explicit incentive, given primarily that volunteering as a public service itself, was the overarching motivation of the program. Occasionally, however, as a tangible reward to the spotting community, tours were put together and were open to members of other AW groups depending on logistical requirements. While groups may be separated by the geography of North America, social media has filled that gap in enabling the streamlined and proactive sharing of media content and coordination among separate groups.

Some of the most exceptional tours offered were airside activities at major airports, in which volunteers could observe from the window of an airport bus or even on foot, taking extraordinary images of aircraft and their operations. For the Ottawa group, this was first offered in 2004, when a full-day tour at Dorval’s PE Trudeau International Airport was provided for about 15 available volunteers, just prior to the forming of ADM’s (Aéroports de Montréal) own AW group two years later. Hosted by ADM authority and Ottawa RCMP, extensive tours were arranged at Air Canada’s main base at Dorval, including hangars, aircraft in heavy maintenance and the air carrier’s training facilities, as well as time in the crew simulators including the large, moving cabin simulator. After lunch at Air Canada’s employee cafeteria, Bombardier provided a comprehensive tour along the moving production line and jigs of Challenger 604 and 300 series aircraft, including newly minted regional airliners in their delivery hanger. The day ended with an escorted airside tarmac tour by ADM security of several heavies, just in from overseas, as well as a final stop alongside runway 24R to photograph arriving airliners. Additional Ottawa AW tours included all-day events at CFB Trenton and the CFS Mountainview storage facility, Burlington (Vermont) International Airport’s Army National Guard hangar and the 158 Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard. For the 10th anniversary of the Ottawa AW group in 2009, with visiting members of Montreal and Toronto AW attending, CEO Paul Benoit provided facilities, refreshments, transportation, and local tours to mark the special occasion.

In 2010, at the Chicago International AW Conference, it was agreed by airport-related police agencies to form the International Airport Watch Association (IAWA), in order to promote aviation safety and security, of which Ottawa AW and the airport itself, was recognized as the “Ottawa Model.” IAWA continues to serve as an association of mostly retired and current law enforcement and military personnel, who facilitate coordination and best practices among global corporate and police stakeholders, as well as the independent, decentralized AW groups, themselves.

Locally, the spotters of the Ottawa program have visited most aircraft facilities in and around the airport at least once, more recently in 2018, touring Alpha Jet aircraft of Top Aces at the Aeroshell complex. In November 2011, the Ottawa Airport Operations and Security Director, Nathalie Samson, provided formal awareness training for AW volunteers alongside airport employees, on Active Shooter and Behaviour Pattern Indicators, in cooperation with the Ottawa police and RCMP instructors, as recommended by the ICAO Security Manual. Other recognition by the FBI and Homeland Security in Chicago and Minneapolis added AW to their respective best practices in the US. In October 2012, the International Airport Seaport Police Association (InterPort Police) awarded their highest honour to the Airport Watch concept which began with the “Ottawa Model.” The awards were presented during ceremonies in New York City, with the International Police Medal being awarded to the RCMP, Bensenville PD (Illinois) and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Police (each of the agencies represented at the forming of IAWA), further cementing the value-added of the program to global airport safety and security.

Ottawa Airport Watch as a pioneer: Moving forward to serve more communities and airports globally

In the years since, the Ottawa AW group has moved towards forming bilateral and multilateral partnerships with corporate airport tenets, beyond solely the airport authority, although the SOC remains the only point of contact for incident reporting. With a successful 2014 IAWA International Conference at an Ottawa airport hotel, attended by representatives from the Australian Federal Police, UK law enforcement and corporate stakeholders, Canadian and US military and law enforcement agencies, as well as an extensive number of Airport Watch spotters and coordinators from across the continent. There, a series of presentations, training sessions, and networking events from all corners of the industry was held over the course of two days. The RCMP’s Federal (enforcement) Coordination Centre of “HQ” Division, SAS Analytics, and UK-based Cunning Running Computers were among the event’s most prominent sponsors, with formal participation from a variety of municipal police and airport representatives from across Canada and the US Midwest.

As OAW approach its 20th anniversary celebrations in 2019, informed, dedicated, and experienced community members continue to volunteer their time as “eyes and ears” around the airport—to be on the watch for any potential threats or risks to safe and secure airport operations. As well, OAW’s spotters remain active community volunteers in other aviation-related organizations and networks, including aviation events at Gatineau and St-Hubert airports. OAW also remains a close partner of the RCMP, more recently with its Border Integrity units, participating in awareness-building and resource-sharing at a number of the smaller airports in and around the NCR. Today, AW volunteers are most often seen wearing high-visibility AW vests with their own vehicles sporting AW door flags for easy identification.

Like it has for the past 20 years—and will for many more yet to come—the motto of Airport Watch, to “Observe, Record, Report” remains at the very heart of the program and its individual volunteers, as they continue to call in observations to the relevant airport operations centre and serve as an additional line in helping to keep airports safe for staff and passengers, alike. Following the recommendations of the ICAO and other national and international regulatory bodies, volunteers are always looking to further their awareness training and collaboration with airport tenets in and around Ottawa and across the globe. The group continues to enhance close cooperation and coordination with various partners in the community, law enforcement, and corporate spheres. Currently, OAW meetings are held at a local City of Ottawa Community Centre, airport Fixed-Base Operator (FBO), or at the Ottawa Flying Club learning centre.

No mention of Ottawa Airport Watch would be complete without acknowledging the close cooperation between and among other Airport Watch groups, associated law enforcement, and airport operators. As of 2019, Airport Watch maintains active volunteer groups at Montreal, Mirabel, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Kelowna, and Vancouver, with Halifax and Iqaluit being the newest additions to the program. In the US, Airport Watch is currently active at Chicago O’Hare and Midway, Minneapolis (and two satellite fields), Fort Lauderdale, and Miami with longstanding associations with the Australian Federal Police, which formed a national AW program at all 10 major airports, and likeminded Airport and Plane Watch groups in the UK.

The 20-year ongoing success story of the Ottawa Airport Watch ultimately began from an unassuming and informal meeting at an Ottawa airport FBO in November 1999, where local police officers simply articulated proven, effective, and cost-efficient community policing concepts that utilize the very best that an informed, dedicated group of local citizens has to offer to the safety and security of a grateful aviation industry. Today, we refer to it as “Partners in safer airports and communities.”


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