Safe harbour: Transforming CCTV surveillance at Belfast Harbour



Lawrence Cohen, CCTV User Group, Hants, UK


Belfast Harbour has transformed its CCTV system in response to robberies and 9/11, and more security improvements are on the horizon. Sam Burke, the port’s chief officer, told Lawrence Cohen about the developments.

Belfast Harbour’s sophisticated CCTV system has been attracting praise from high places. Port inspectors from TRANSEC, the security division of the UK Department of Transport, recently described the system as one of the best they’ve even seen. The Police Service of Northern Ireland, meanwhile, has praised the system for helping to catch some the most prolific perpetrators of vehicle crime in Belfast.

Such praise underlines just how far CCTV at the Port of Belfast has come in the last three-and-a-half years. In June 2001, the port made national headlines for all the wrong reasons, after armed robbers stole £15 million of cigarettes from the port’s container depot.

Sam Burke, chief officer, Belfast Harbour Police, recalls: “Our old CCTV system was found to be a problem. We had an old black-and-white analogue system which had been gradually allowed to go into decline, and we weren’t able to get clear enough images of the robbers. The subsequent publicity wasn’t good and the whole thing was a complete disaster.”

Belfast Harbour Police had already moved Mr Burke from CID to the force’s operational division, handing him the role of overhauling the port’s CCTV, just prior to the robbery: “I had been given the task of overhauling CCTV just before the robbery took place, but the robbery gave the overhaul extra impetus,” he says.

System overhaul

Transforming CCTV surveillance at Belfast Harbour, which is spread out over 2,100 acres, represented a huge challenge. Almost two million passengers, half-a-million freight units and 9,000 vessels pass through the harbour each year.

In order to kick-start the CCTV project, Belfast Harbour commissioners appointed Matt McDonald, a security consultancy, to help him plan the system and oversee its design and installation. He says: “It took about 10 months just to get the system planning right before choosing an installer.” Bell Security was selected to install the CCTV system, beating 13 other installation companies to the contract.

The Port of Belfast spent more than £1 million on the CCTV overhaul. Initially, 79 cameras were installed. Today, there are more than 86 cameras covering the port. A combination of static and pan, tilt and zoom (PTZ) cameras cover all of Belfast Harbour’s entrances and exits. PTZs have also been installed overlooking the harbour’s ship docking areas.

Cameras also watch over the harbour’s rubb sheds, which are used to store timber products such as pallets of plywood: “The sheds and their contents are always a target for criminals, so we installed dome cameras in and around the sheds,” Mr Burke says.

Automatic Number Plate Recognition arrests

CCTV, used in tandem with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), has helped the Port of Belfast reduce theft from the rubb sheds and other parts of the port. Static cameras – one positioned high, one positioned low – have been installed at each of the harbour’s entrance and exit points. If one of the cameras capture a “hot” number plate, such as a stolen vehicle or a vehicle linked to known suspects, the port’s ANPR system produces an audible alarm to alert operators to take action. “ANPR draws our attention to a suspect vehicle right away,” says Mr Burke.

ANPR helped Mr Burke and his team catch a gang of criminals who were stealing timber from the port. “We had experienced theft of timber from a number of rubb sheds for a number of weeks, with pallets of wood worth £6,000 each being stolen,” he says. “CID investigated and identified which vehicles were being used by the criminals and, low and behold, the criminals returned for another raid. Our ANPR system flagged up an audible alarm that their vehicle had entered the port, so we watched them on CCTV, recorded the theft and then made the arrest. We discovered two pallets in their van.”

To Mr Burke’s annoyance, the men who had stolen the pallets were given suspended sentences in court and were soon back trying to steal from the port’s rubb sheds. “Again they were identified by a combination of ANPR and CCTV, even though they were using a different stolen van this time,” he says. “They failed to stop when we flagged them down and a car theft ensued, but eventually we made the arrest. This time we found three pallets in the van!”

The Port of Belfast’s ANPR system, supplied by CitySync, manages to accurately capture the number plates of more than 90% of vehicles entering and leaving the port, according to Mr Burke. Around 35,000 vehicles pass through the port on a weekday; 20,000 vehicles on Saturdays.


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