Substation Security Challenges

Substation Security Challenges

Applying smart thermal technology to prevent intrusions

Electrical substations present a number of unique challenges, ranging from theft, vandalism and safety concerns to complying with increasingly enforced regulations from the National Electrical Reliability Commission’s (NERC) Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) program.

While the threat of terrorist activity to disrupt the nation’s power grid remains ever-present, other hazards such as theft and vandalism are more common and represent an immediate challenge. With the price of copper at an all-time high, and with a large amount of copper wiring present at electrical substations, it’s no surprise that they have become an attractive target for thieves. Substation owners have begun taking some precautions, such as painting or marking wiring, to alert scrap yards that copper has been stolen.

However, that has not stopped thieves from breaking into substations—often with lethal consequences, along with the associated liability beyond potentially disrupting electrical services. Even if thieves get away unscathed, the safety of the substation may have been compromised. Maintenance staff members have been severely injured or killed in the process of performing regular maintenance due to the destabilization of certain elements of the power grid caused by copper theft.

In light of these and other concerns, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and NERC have worked together to put additional safeguards in place to ensure greater physical security around these assets and to prevent cascading consequences. This partnership has led to the strengthening of NERC’s CIP standards. While these standards have always been considered well-respected guidelines, as a result of the latest initiatives they are inching closer to being federal mandates, which can be enforced with fines and other punitive measures for noncompliance. As CIP standards move toward mandates, utilities will be required to deploy security equipment to comply with regulations.

In order to assure the physical security of these potentially vulnerable substations, CIP standards require protection on all six sides of assets: the four surrounding sides plus above and below. To meet this requirement, the conventional wisdom has been to use video surveillance cameras to cover all six sides of the asset. However, there are limitations to what video surveillance can do. Historically, it has only provided passive recording of events for future use. What is really needed is a security modality which can detect and stop intruders as soon as they enter a secured area. When it comes to protecting these critical assets, a real-time awareness when an intrusion is taking place is critical to ensuring a timely response and preventing an incident from escalating.

This is where automated detection solutions excel. These smart systems never tire, can cover large distances, and see what the human eye would miss, all while delivering immediate, actionable information to enable people to make fast response decisions. Smart systems can be combined with manpower to manage outdoor security in a uniquely effective way.

The key for reliability in a smart outdoor security system is to select a solution that starts with accuracy as a foundation. When alerts are unreliable, there is no accountability— a responder doesn’t know which of thousands of alerts he should respond to. Historically, the common approach for detecting intrusions over large perimeters has been to use a blind sensor, such as coax or fiber on the fence, acting as an activity detector, augmented by a camera to help security guards determine the cause of the alert. The drawback to such an approach is that these sensors can generate many nuisance alerts, diminishing reliability, while the costs for deploying and maintaining two separate systems—a sensor and a video system—can quickly escalate.

Thermal cameras with video analytics—also known as “smart” thermal cameras— provide substantial advantages over these alternatives, increasing the probability of intruder detection while greatly reducing the nuisance alarms that have plagued automated perimeter systems in the past. One advantage is speed, which is paramount when thwarting an intruder. Smart thermal cameras combine accurate detection with visual detail to determine the “what and where” of an alert without additional verification systems.

For this reason, smart thermal video cameras are being used at electrical utilities to provide reliable detection of intruders and deliver accurate alarms in even the most challenging conditions. Some smart thermal cameras now benefit from the same processing advancements that make all of our computing devices so powerful, and can amplify small differences between the temperature of a person and the background, accurately detecting intruders even in less than ideal conditions. They will ignore headlights, reflections off water or other lighting issues that cause false detections with visible light cameras.

Because they can detect in complete dark, bright sunlight or poor weather, smart thermal cameras can be counted on to secure outdoor areas 24/7. The alerts smart thermal cameras generate are accurate and will drive focused attention when an intrusion occurs. With the right combination of manpower and automation, smart thermal systems provide the reliable, real-time security necessary to protect substations and meet federal physical security mandates.

By sending alerts when an intrusion occurs, or even when someone approaches a fence line, officials are alerted and can view video in real time to determine if there is activity to be stopped. With this level of detection, you would know when someone has entered a site before they had an opportunity to steal, vandalize or disrupt substation operations or the power grid as a whole. Some smart thermal cameras can also automatically control PTZ cameras to the exact location of an alarm and to zoom and follow a detected target. Knowing this information enables accurate, real-time response directly to where the threat resides, while ensuring good forensic evidence after the fact. If multiple events unfold simultaneously, the system can track them all, and keep operators from becoming confused by a distraction or decoy.

The predominant methodology for securing critical assets such as substations has historically focused on perimeter security. However, there are numerous advantages to using thermal cameras for outdoor security beyond their typical use along a fence line to protect a defined perimeter. They also can create virtual barriers along open areas that surround a building or an asset to prevent insider theft where physical or man-made boundaries are unlikely to exist. Adding infrastructure around internal assets would be costly and likely impede the flow of business operations. Smart video can be used to create a security buffer zone around areas of special concern to control access based on time of day or other criteria, mitigating possible sabotage or theft from insiders.

Additional technologies are available with smart cameras that are proving beneficial in a substation environment. For instance, some systems now incorporate audible communications so an intruder who has triggered an alarm can be requested to identify themselves. All those authorized to have access can be given a unique access code to enter on their phones, which can also be supplemented by an audio password. The access accountability of codes and/ or passwords generates a complete log of who enters and exits the area—satisfying the physical security aspects of NERC’s CIP requirements.

True security means stopping an event by detecting intruders as soon as they enter a secured area. When it comes to protecting these critical assets, this real-time awareness when an intrusion is taking place is critical to ensuring a timely response and preventing theft, vandalism, accidents and other potentially dangerous activities or events that could disrupt the stability of the power grid—while also meeting increasingly enforced security regulations.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Security Today.


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