Flip that Switch
It just makes sense to employ video surveillance and analytics for utilities
- By Paul Smith
- Feb 01, 2011
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Security Today.