Cameras Are an Important Security Tool for Power Plants and Substations

Physical security of plants and substations has become a real concern for power companies. In an interview with NPR, Puesh Kumar, director of the U.S. Energy Department’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy, Security, and Emergency Response, noted that there are more than 3,000 electric utilities in the U.S. operating more than 75,000 electric substations across the country. Additionally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration lists 10,865 power plants in the U.S., all of which require some sort of security. Protecting all of these sites is no small task.

And recent incidents have proven that protection is necessary. Three substations near Tacoma, Washington, were damaged by vandals on Christmas Day last year, causing more than 14,000 outages on the Tacoma Power and Puget Sound Energy systems. Earlier that month, a firearms attack on a couple of North Carolina substations knocked out power to about 45,000 Duke Energy customers. These events bring to light the vulnerability that exists, and suggest a risk-based approach to protecting sites is warranted.

“What are those measures that would actually buy down the risk?” Kumar asked. He noted answering the question often requires looking at the specific equipment and geographic locations of sites. It’s also important to evaluate all of your security options.

Cameras and Monitoring Systems

Surveillance cameras offer a proven solution for some locations. Cameras are known to work, not only at power stations, but also at other facilities. The experience of American Iron and Metal (AIM) provides one example of success.

With the price of metal skyrocketing in recent years, AIM, a global recycling and manufacturing company, became an attractive target for petty thieves and some organized gangs. “We’re in an industry most people would view as trash,” Guy Ouellet, the company’s director of Corporate Security, said, “but scrap metal and other materials are worth a lot of money and that attracts all kinds of criminal elements.”

Rather than leave its more than 200 facilities to manage security on their own, Ouellet wanted to centralize video monitoring of all AIM assets around the world. “For that I needed to standardize the equipment and software to ensure image quality and our ability to scale the solution as our companies grow,” he explained.

Ouellet approached Securmax, a Montreal, Canada–based security systems integrator with 25 years of industry experience, to help build an enterprise-level security solution that could easily adapt to the individual challenges facing each site. Yan Bujold, vice president of Sales for Securmax, suggested AIM deploy more than 1,000 Axis pan-tilt-zoom, multi-directional and panoramic cameras (Figure 1), as well as horn speakers, to its facilities around the world. “I recommended Axis cameras because, for me, they’re the best cameras on the market,” Bujold said.

1. The AXIS P1468-XLE is a robust, impact- and weather-resistant fixed camera that delivers excellent image quality in 4K resolution under any light conditions. It is the world’s first explosion-protected camera specifically designed to meet North American and European directives for equipment intended for use in potentially explosive atmospheres, that is, Zone and Division 2 hazardous locations. Courtesy: Axis Communications

“Before we install equipment at a site, we look at crime statistics and other data to help with our risk assessment,” Ouellet noted. “Estimating the likelihood of problems coming from outside our walls or from our own employees impacts how we adapt our security solution to that location.”

Now, AIM’s corporate security team centrally manages the networked security solution through a Genetec Security Center video management system at corporate headquarters. Among other things, Securmax also equipped AIM’s Montreal guards with Axis body-worn cameras to document random searches of employees for pilfering, and to minimize wait times for truckers delivering scrap metal, they installed 2N intercoms at the yard gates in Montreal and Laval.

Analytics Provide a Solid Return on Investment

AIM credits the Axis cameras with helping the company make six to eight arrests every week and recoup about $3.5 million a year. “I’m not telling you that we catch every incident, but currently we’re recouping our investment thanks to our more advanced Axis security system,” Ouellet reported.

Because AIM precisely tuned the in-camera analytics to filter out things like background traffic on a busy boulevard, they’ve reduced false alarms from about 74,000 a day to a more manageable 38,000. The addition of Axis horn speakers to properties has enabled AIM facilities to stop potential trespassers before they gain access. The cameras have also improved site safety, enabling remote security staff to distinguish between simple water vapor emanating from a shredder or black smoke indicative of a malfunction or potential fire.

“We’re always pushing our Axis system to the limit,” said Ouellet, “but it’s the onboard analytics that make it possible for my corporate security staff to successfully manage our globally integrated security solution.”

AIM currently relies on two edge-based analytics: AXIS Motion Guard and AXIS Fence Guard. The company uses motion guard to detect suspicious activity in specific areas, especially after hours. Because the analytic can be configured to ignore ordinary background motion like headlights, swaying foliage, and small objects, it greatly reduces false alarms. Ouellet’s team can program the cameras to automatically play a warning message from the Axis horn speakers or turn on flood lights to scare off intruders while sending emails and live video streams to corporate security so they can take action.

With the addition of fence guard, the camera can send an alert to security as a suspicious person or vehicle approaches a predefined virtual line such as a fenced-in area. The perspective setting allows the camera to focus on farther away activity while ignoring foreground things like foliage and animals.

While Ouellet applauds the clarity of the cameras, having smart edge-based analytics are what make the centralized security solution feasible to manage. “It would be impossible for our small security department to monitor all these cameras without analytics,” Ouellet acknowledged.

Keeping an Eye on Everything

Ouellet is always looking for ways to use technology to outsmart potential thieves. For instance, he installed ultra-quiet, multi-directional Axis Q-line cameras with black shadow lenses so that suspects can’t see which way the lens is pointing. “If the thief knows when the lens is pointing away from him, he can tell his partners when it’s safe to jump the fence,” said Ouellet. “Why make it easy for them?”

The Axis cameras and horn speakers have become standard tools for enforcing health and safety protocols throughout the corporation as well. Among other things, the system helps deter employees from smoking in no-smoking areas and allows site managers to see whether employees are following correct procedures while operating front loaders. Because some recycling facilities accumulate big piles of flammable material, AIM installed Axis thermal temperature alarm cameras to remotely monitor temperatures and alert staff to intercede and prevent fires in the case of rising temperatures.

AIM plans to institute a network of Axis horn speakers at its Montreal site. “If we have a fire alarm, we will be able to broadcast messages to the employees in a specific building or all the buildings on the entire site, if necessary,” explained Ouellet.

Ouellet’s next goal is to mount Axis cameras onto drones to expand surveillance at massive properties such as the 139-acre site that AIM operates in the Arizona desert. “Because these are large areas with no fence line, we tend to get people motorbiking or riding four-wheelers onto the property who have no idea they are on private land,” Ouellet said. He plans to take advantage of the audio capabilities that are built into some of the Axis cameras to swoop down on trespassers and warn them off.

“I think the future is technology,” Ouellet said. Furthermore, he suggested working with a partner such as Axis to influence the types of new systems they embed on their cameras and other devices is key to improving safety and security.

Sophie LaPlante is business development manager, Cities – Canada with Axis Communications.

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