Patrolling the vast reaches of the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries has always been a difficult task for law enforcement officers. But a new $2.4 million radar-and-camera network is giving them a clear view of boat traffic from the port of Baltimore into the Potomac River.
The Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network allows Natural Resources Police dispatchers in Annapolis to track and intercept suspicious vessels and speed assistance to boaters in distress.
Dispatchers can draw an electronic "picket line" around a sensitive area such as the liquefied natural gas terminal in Calvert County, a cruise ship approaching the Inner Harbor or an oyster sanctuary near Tilghman Island. A vessel entering the area will trip an alarm and automatically activate cameras.
The radar can detect a 3-foot-square object seven miles away. The cameras have a range of three to five miles.
Tapping into another system, called Blue Force Tracker, a dispatcher can determine which law enforcement vessel — local, state or federal — is closest to the targeted boat and alert it.
"We'll have immediate eyes on the water and be able to monitor a situation as we send boats out," said Col. George Johnson, superintendent of the Natural Resources Police. "We will be able to tell officers what to expect as they approach and adjust our response as things unfold."
Phase one of NRP's system consists of one camera and four radar units. But agreements with state and federal agencies and private corporations up and down the bay extend MLEIN's vision while avoiding duplication of equipment. Patuxent Naval Air Station and a naval research lab near Chesapeake Beach will be sharing radar images to cover the water south of Anne Arundel County. Pictures from cameras in Baltimore, Annapolis and Prince George's County also will feed into the system.
In return, those jurisdictions will be able to tap into MLEIN in an emergency.
"It gives us the ability to share information with decision-makers in real time," said Tim Bowman, the MLEIN project manager. "All they'll need is an Internet connection."
At a demonstration of MLEIN, a technician marked an intermittent blip on the radar screen and directed a camera near the Bay Bridge to zero in on the subject. Guiding the camera with his finger on a mouse pad, the technician zoomed in to show a waterman hauling oysters into his small boat. The name of the boat could be read.
The system also allows dispatchers to mark and track poachers working at night so that officers can place them under surveillance, intercept them or meet them at the dock. MLEIN stores the information for use as evidence in a court case.
Natural Resources Police also will rely on MLEIN next boating season to determine whether reports of a fire on the bay involve a vessel in distress or a beach bonfire and whether a Mayday call is real or a prank.
While running the first tests on MLEIN this fall, police technicians were able to watch a recreational fisherman haul an undersized striped bass onto the Matapeake fishing pier just south of the Bay Bridge and stuff it in a sack, Johnson said. An officer sent to the pier confronted the shocked angler, who surrendered the fish without argument.
"From the first moment we turned it on and found someone that quickly," Johnson said, "we had an indication of what MLEIN can do."