Voluntary airport watch program is keeping O'Hare safer

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - There are extra eyes on the skies tonight, watching for suspicious activity at O’Hare Airport.

While some cities and businesses are beefing up security in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, O’Hare has a world class volunteer airport watch program that’s been going on for 5 years.

The Airport Watch Program members can tell you anything you want to know about any aircraft. Many of them are avid photographers, and you can imagine the scrutiny they got taking photos of airplanes after 9-11.

"Quite often if not geeks we were seen to be a threat because we have these long lenses and people were calling in saying these guys with a bazooka along the airport perimeter," said ORD Airport Watch Program Ian Hardie

The group was approached by law enforcement about their spotting skills and soon the largest airport watch program in the country, 277 members strong, took off at O'Hare.

Joel Vargas with Bensenville PD helps coordinate the group’s efforts with the FBI, TSA, Chicago Police and Air Marshall Service.

"Airports are big hubs for crime. Common crime and organized crime as you know…we train them to look for criminals and to look for terrorists," Vargas said. "One of the things that makes us useful to the law enforcement is by the nature of our hobby, we tend to be very observant."

While taking photos of aircraft, the group has spotted holes cut in the security fence, noticed open gates, stopped suspicious individuals from climbing the security fence and discovered debris on the runway that could easily be sucked up in a jet engine.

"The biggest thing is the vests that they wear; it's an orange vest that says ORD Airport Watch on it. That is a huge deterrence for us If someone is thinking about doing something, they're going to think twice."
 
The program is modeled after the neighborhood watch program. Their motto: Observe, hear and report.

The crime rate around O'Hare has dropped 70 percent in the last 2 years in large part because of the program.

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