DUNKIRK, NY (WIVB) At first glance they look like cell towers, but many residents of Evans or Dunkirk may not realize that the million dollar towers on the edge of Lake Erie are actually used by U.S. Border Patrol agents to watch for people trying to enter the country illegally from Canada.
“I can tell you they are significant and they re of the highest quality,” said Russell Eiser, Special Operations Supervisor for U.S. Border Patrol. “These are primary radar. Our cameras are good and they are significant but this is a radar facility. They use coastal surveillance system and have a camera package attached to them but it’s the radar that makes them so critically useful.”
Last August, the latest one went up just south of Dunkirk at a cost of a million dollars. It is a radar tower equipped with video surveillance. It is similar to ones that have been up and running running for years at Sturgeon Point in Evans and in Ripley, near the Pennsylvania line.
U.S. Border Patrol allowed us inside one of the most elaborate communication rooms on the Northern Border. It’s on Grand Island but monitors not only those towers along the lake, but all the other cameras watching bridges and waterways closer to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. They can often pick out how many people are on a boat even in the dark of night.
“It’s thermal imaging. So our cameras have the capability where heat is your primary signature on those cameras,” said Eiser.
Border Patrol also works in conjunction with component counterparts like Air and Marine Operations, which flies a helicopter based in Niagara Falls.The Buffalo Sector for Border Patrol stretches 341 miles, from the Thousand Islands Region through Niagara Falls, Buffalo and down to the Pennsylvania border, it’s covered by 300 agents.
“That’s the biggest challenge here at Buffalo sector here is the border is the attraction up here,” said Eiser. “You have recreation, you have business out there doing charters, all sorts of things going on in the water. You have tourists out here, so it makes it a huge challenge for our agents to find that needle in a haystack. This gives us that little bit of an advantage to watch what’s going on in the water.”
If the radar towers capture anything suspicious, day or night out on the lake, the folks back in the communication center can dispatch agents by land, boat or helicopter to go check them out, according to Eiser. “Typically, it’s people that are legitimate traffic; boaters, fishermen, recreational stuff, but we do get guys that are coming over and we are able to stop them there. Until they make landfall, we usually don’t place them under arrest, we will turn them back and say ‘Hey, you need to do this. This is the laws.”
Last March, residents of Brazil were caught trying to gain entry by JetSki off Grand Island. “That case was significant because Border Patrol and local authorities, we had to rescue a young lady that the smuggler basically abandoned out on the water on broken ice, and he abandoned her just to save himself,” said Eiser.
So the next time you see the 200 foot towers at Sturgeon Point, Dunkirk and Ripley, know that’s just part of Border Patrol’s round the clock watch on the U.S.-Canada border. “It’s good for people to know that this is out there, that this technology is out there. We are improving our infrastructure. The Border Patrol is continuing to progress our technology to help make our nation and border safer.”