BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Look up the next you visit one of Western New York’s landmarks, and there’s a chance you’ll see federal agents in the air. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) increasingly relies on helicopters to help secure our border. The choppers provide the quickest and easiest surveillance options.
News 4 asked, and federal agents agreed to let us fly along so we could see the unique challenges they face every day.
“You never really know what each day is gonna bring,” Supervisory Air and Marine Agent Mark Diss explained. When he shows up for work, he rarely knows what his mission will be. Diss leads a ten person CBP team that flies full-time in the Buffalo area.
Most missions keep them about 500 feet off the ground. Diss took us along the western flank of the Niagara River along Grand Island. It’s a spot Diss calls “one of the easiest” to cross in the United States. The agents from Air and Marine work closely with their partners at Border Patrol and CBP Field Operations. The officers help secure the international bridges. Border Patrol monitors the land and our rivers. Air and Marine agents watch the Great Lakes from the air and on the water | See our special report from 2015.
CBP calls it a unity of effort. They want terrorists and people trying to sneak into the U.S. to know they’re always watching.
“99 percent of everybody out here is normal traffic. They’re doing their fishing. They’re doing recreational activities,” Diss admitted. Officers must find that one percent.
We watch as Diss scans the sky and the water. His keen eye helps him spot a pontoon boat with a fisherman on board. At one point he circled closer until he confirmed another boat was a dive ship. “I can work at different altitudes – go higher – if I want to keep my noise level down. You just get the feel of what is normal and what is not normal,” Diss said.
The unique geography and terrain WNY present special challenges for CBP. Think of all the water: the creeks, rivers and two Great Lakes. Agents must always be keenly aware of the imaginary line through the water that serves as the international border.
“Most winters Lake Erie freezes, so what was a maritime border with water and obviously recreational boaters becomes…a land border,” Diss said. He’s seen snow mobiles, ice fisherman and even cars and trucks on the ice.
The chopper crews work year-round. The cold doesn’t affect their operations, but snow and precipitation can ground them.
Diss and his team even flew during Snowvember since the lake effect band was so localized. “As long as the weather will allow us to fly, we’ll be able to go through. It’s kind of unique.”
The Buffalo-based air agents must watch 341 nautical miles of border. They respond to calls from Ashtabula, Ohio all the way to Watertown, NY.
Federal security concerns keep Diss and his colleagues from discussing the specifics of their missions, but we can tell you the team regularly does surveillance flyovers over landmarks like Niagara Falls and Downtown Buffalo. “We have certain areas that we have to be cognizant of – to watch that there isn’t a terrorist event around,” Diss admitted.
NIagara Falls is one of them. Agent Diss took us as close to the falls as you can fly. “The threat is very high. We’ve had four terrorist missions that we’ve worked, in partnership with other agencies, and done our own investigations…between here and Rochester and that’s in the last two years, so the threat is very real here.”
Unlike the southern U.S border which sees constant traffic, things here remain slower. While there may be fewer people crossing illegally, the threats individuals pose can be greater.
Agents can place an armed rifleman on board when necessary. “And in that situation if you have an active shooter, he can go ahead and engage from the aircraft,” Diss said.
Assisting other agencies
These agents in the air spend most of their time supporting other federal agencies. They also respond to help our local departments with things like manhunts, raids, and search and rescue. The air patrol can have radio communications with every state and local public safety and law enforcement official in WNY. The air response can save time and ground resources.
Diss and most of his colleagues are Buffalo transplant, but many have decided to make WNY home because they love their mission.
“This is our community that we’re protecting… and we take that very important. We’re Buffalonians at this point, and we want to make our city safer, whether that be from terrorist activities or some other type of crime…or public safety,” Diss said.
It’s a mission that never ends. Danger could show up on our doorstep any day, and the agents have to be ready to fly.
CBP routinely recruits pilots for its Air and Marine division. If you’re interested, click here to learn more.