Flip that Switch

It just makes sense to employ video surveillance and analytics for utilities

Electricity, natural gas, solar, wind, water, sewage plants, communications and nuclear plants: The services we take for granted, pay for and can’t live without. We often think that big events like terrorism and natural disasters are overriding concerns for utility companies, but it is the day-to-day operations that are most critical and that benefit most when a well-planned and properly implemented video surveillance solution is put in place.

All utility companies have a common denominator: They all have assets and operations spread throughout a region, and they all are concerned about how to create a comprehensive security plan that is built on an integrated platform and run with a common set of policies and procedures.

A Virtual Exploration
Utility companies face numerous security issues based on what they are protecting. We are going to explore four unique locations that required an improvement to their security solutions, covering those in commercial office buildings, service centers, power generator areas and substations.

Three years ago, one security department was faced with the challenge of upgrading its physical security solutions and investigating the possibility of replacing antiquated intrusion detection systems with video analytics. The equipment in use was getting older and taking its toll on the operations and maintenance budget. It also was proving less and less reliable, resulting in an increase of intrusion breach incidents.

Commercial office buildings. The commercial office buildings within the utility company needed protection for the perimeter of the buildings during off-hours as well as 24/7 security for the property, people and information housed in each office space.

With more than 2,500 cameras used at office campuses alone, the security group had to figure out how to control alarms with only four or five security staff monitoring and responding to incidents at any given time. There also were significant bandwidth issues when streaming data from that number of cameras, so video could stream only upon an alarm event. Traditional motion sensors were not efficient at filtering out environmental motion, resulting in a high false alarm rate. The utility company did not want to have on-site monitoring at each location during off-hours, so all monitoring needed to happen at a single location for part of each day.

The solution implemented for the commercial office buildings was edge-based video analytics integrated into an IP-based video management system. During off-hours, the analytics were armed and aided the remote operator by providing actionable intelligence, which improved both their efficiency and response times.

Office complexes often have a problem with loiterers, skateboarders and vagrants with nefarious intent. Local authorities are quicker to respond when security staff are able to clearly communicate the issue at hand and the severity of the situation.

During business hours, a receptionist monitors the video management system. The receptionist is able to view the local cameras only and can report suspicious activity to the security group, which can remotely view live and recorded video.

For some of the smaller locations, receptionists team up constantly monitored cameras and visitors are assisted even during breaks and days off. Having this analytics solution in place has created a considerable cost savings in the staff needed to monitor sites. No longer is there a need for three officer shifts per day, seven days a week. The cross-support of receptionists has improved coverage with existing staff.

The utility met its goal of protecting assets more efficiently and today there is a 50-percent decrease in incident activity due to suspects being apprehended and word-of-mouth deterrence.

Service centers. Service centers are a major target of theft due to the number of company vehicles stored on the property and the equipment and assets within the vehicle and surrounding area -- mainly tools, laptop computers, spools of wire and copper. It was critical that the protection put in place at the service centers was correctly positioned and that personnel were instructed on the location of the protected areas so they would store assets properly. The business managers at each service center had a major role in designing the security system. Their knowledge and understanding of the daily operations was critical to the success of the system implementation.

Most of the service centers were equipped with an aging infrastructure of beam systems for intrusion detection.

The beam systems required field maintenance to clean and adjust the sensors, and the burden of frequent maintenance calls was outweighing the systems’ usefulness.

The solution ultimately used was an alarm system on each of the buildings and video analytics to cover key areas of the yard. Upon alarm, law enforcement is immediately alerted. An officer with a guard dog is dispatched.

Typically, the perpetrators are either caught by the police or scared away by the canine. Theft is down more than 75 percent since the new systems have been installed.

The original plan was selective, marking only service centers with the highest loss rates for upgrade. Because of the cooperation between security and the business managers in designing the system, less video analytics was needed than originally planned. This freed up funds to outfit additional service centers.

The return on investment for the initial round of service centers was so great that security worked with the remaining service centers to share in the cost of implementing systems. Security didn’t have to foot the entire bill, and the service center was able to support the effort with money that would normally be used for replacement of lost assets.

Finally, with a weak economy, the budget is always coming under close scrutiny. The security team’s operation and maintenance budget was one of the first to be hit. With the new system in place, it was able to do more O&M with less money while increasing the security and safety of the service centers.

Power-generation assets. Another source of concern for the utility company was its power-generating solar fields. The solar assets are located on enormous plots of land and are surrounded by fences, but the entrances are open and need to be monitored.

Thieves would need a vehicle to steal a solar panel, and in a burglary attempt they would have to use an exit area to remove the asset.

Again, video analytics was the solution of choice. In a traditional video management system, an end user would need approximately 10 cameras to cover a zone. With video analytics, however, users need only one camera in the targeted area of approach. Although the cost per channel of video analytics is higher than the cost per camera, using one device rather than 10 made this the most economical solution available.

The security department has found an even greater savings in preventative maintenance costs. Cameras generally need to be cleaned, adjusted and focused quarterly, all in the field. With the video analytics solution, the field technician cleans the cameras while the focusing and fine-tuning is done at headquarters. The cost of maintaining one camera versus 10 per entrance has made a big difference on the O&M budget.

They also are considering adding license plate recognition to the system to further the solutions’ effectiveness.

To date, there have been no burglaries and many fewer incidents of vandalism in the solar fields. The security department has realized a 33 percent savings in the O&M budget over the older systems.

Transmission, distribution and substations. Substations have much the same needs and results as the service centers, but they have unique technological issues, including lightning strikes and electromagnetic interference generated by the substations.

When equipment is destroyed because of lightning strikes or EMI, the financial consequences are often three times the equipment costs (repair, downtime and labor costs ). The video analytics solution is not affected by the breakers, relays and transformers in this unique environment and therefore was the perfect fit.

Bandwidth use for all of the remote sites was critical in the design. Using analytics on the edge allowed the system to send video back from a camera only upon alarm, and the frame rates could change depending on the type of behavior. This saved infrastructure costs by allowing the use of a partial T1 from each site, which saved IT budget.

The IT team was instrumental in the design, testing and implementation of all the security systems installed. This was another example of shared budget (IT and security) and cost savings. In the future, many remote substation sites that were not upgraded will be equipped with wireless to afford those locations the same advantages. Having technology experts at the security department’s fingertips will aid in the next phase of the project.

The implementation of this particular project was the end result of much planning and cooperation. What started off as a four-page operational requirements document ended up as a 25-page scope of work. Experience taught this utility company not to cut any corners when it comes to putting everything in writing -- from the big plan down to the exact part numbers and manufacturer’s certification requirements.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Security Today.

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