The Real World of Critical Infrastructure

Public utilities company looks to state-of-the-art technology to monitor premises

WATER and electricity are two fundamental aspects of modern American life that many take for granted as expected essentials. Every day, Americans drink 1 billion glasses of tap water and consume 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. These are staggering numbers that help illustrate the enormity of the nation's dependence on water and electricity.

Disruptions to water and electricity are evident in both the popular media and on the evening news. The 2000 Hollywood blockbuster Erin Brokovich starring Julia Roberts told the dramatic true story of how a town's Chromium 6-laced water caused ill heath effects and ended in a $333 million legal settlement. Back in the real world, the one-day blackout in August 2003 that struck the northeastern part of North America came with a price tag of $6 billion, according to Energy Department estimates.

Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, water and energy, both of which are classified as critical infrastructures, have been identified for major protection initiatives by the Department of Homeland Security. As a result, utility companies across the nation are placing security among their top priorities. Anti-terrorist coordination with government bodies such as the FBI, overhauled emergency response plans, vulnerability assessments and physical security upgrades have now become a part of everyday operations in the management of critical infrastructure sites.

So when the Department of Public Utilities for a major U.S. city (which requested anonymity for security reasons) speaks about security, people listen. With far-reaching responsibility for water and power for roughly half a million people, the department had very serious security concerns. In complying with DHS directives, the department implemented site upgrades that strengthened access control and surveillance. The security upgrade is an ambitious large-scale project that covers dozens of sites, some of them reaching 60 acres in size.

"The project will use state-of-the-art technology on both the hardware and software side," said Bob Myers of Paladin Protective Systems, the systems integrator working with the department. "The sheer size and scope makes this project physically complex and technically challenging."

Although mitigating the risk of a terrorist attack is the underlying directive from the DHS, the department also was concerned about protecting its assets from smaller malicious acts such as robbery and vandalism.

The surveillance upgrade includes the installation of fixed cameras and PTZ speed domes to provide overview and interrogative surveillance capability. The cameras are supported by infrared illumination, which allows effective surveillance images to be captured on a 24/7 basis, even under total darkness.

"We are seeing a growing demand for night time capability at critical infrastructure projects around the world," said Jack Gin, president and CEO of Extreme CCTV. "The need to see effectively at night has driven a growing reliance on night vision technologies for critical security applications."

Active-Infrared Helps Out
Active-infrared illumination is light that lies in the wavelength region of 700 to 1,000 nanometers, making it invisible to the unaided human eye. The term "active" differentiates from other night vision technologies such as thermal imaging and intensified CCDs, both of which are passive systems. Active-infrared systems use illuminators that actively create light so that the infrared-sensitive cameras can form clear, high-resolution images, even in total darkness. Based on core technology developed in the consumer camera market, active-infrared CCD technology uses the same materials, making it a very cost-effective night vision solution capable of high-resolution imaging.

The department considered using visible illumination, but selected active-infrared on the basis of cost.

"Trenching, cabling, installing poles and running high-voltage power out to the camera site would have exceeded the budgets," Myers said. "It was more cost-effective to go with the infrared illuminators."

Aside from cost, the IR illuminators are specifically designed for CCTV purposes, as opposed to general purpose streetlights that often fool conventional cameras by producing "hot spots" and darker shadow areas.

A Need for Motion Detection
Surveillance images are fed not only into DVRs, but also into video motion detection (VMD) components programmed to analyze an image for pixel changes. The department's investment into the extra layer of intelligence in VMD represents a growing concern within the security industry: that the increase in camera usage places a heavier burden on those charged with monitoring the cameras. A study performed by an Australian firm indicated "after 12 minutes of continuous video monitoring, an operator will often miss up to 45 percent of scene activity. After 22 minutes of viewing, up to 95 percent is overlooked."

VMD and other video analytic software are designed to address these problems, supplementing conventional monitoring with algorithm-based monitoring. The basic premise of VMD usually involves algorithms that analyze an image for pixel changes. Upon the detection of pixel changes, the program responds with alarms, alerts or any number of other responses. Thus, VMD can act as a virtual barrier, sending an alarm when pixel changes (i.e. movement) is detected at the time that the virtual barrier is breached.

In accordance with the popular "garbage-in, garbage-out" principle of computing, any video-based technology works only if the video images represent good data. In selecting active infrared for the security upgrade, the department ensured that the back-end intelligent processing of the surveillance system will operate not only during the day, but also at night. Thus, the VMD component can work around the clock, under any lighting conditions, including total darkness.

The surveillance images from all sites are available for real-time remote viewing via the department's dedicated network. Thus, the police force at the central monitoring facility can instantly monitor events at the various utility facilities across town in real time. At the local site, the officers also will be monitoring their site from within the guard house, keeping watch over various alarm points in real time. In addition to dedicated on-site monitoring, the entire system will be monitored from one command center to ensure a complete and accurate interrogation.

"The system can be set up so that lower-level security breaches stay at the bottom of the response ladder," Myers said. "If critical security breaches occur, the system can immediately initiate top-level response, including officer command scripts that tell the utility police officer exactly how to respond to the situation on their display monitor."


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