Utility Security Challenges


When I first started working with the Birmingham Water Works Board in 2001, there was no security department, and other then a few gates and a chainlink fence, security was not a real concern. As with most water districts at the time, safety measures were limited and the water supply was presumed safe. The ripple effect of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 shattered all of that. Every aspect of daily life fell under scrutiny, and water was an obviously long overlooked area of vital concern.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, federal dam operators and water and wastewater utilities have been under heightened security conditions, and the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency has required all water districts serving more than 100,000 people to conduct a vulnerability assessment. I was hired as a consultant to conduct that assessment for Birmingham, which is the largest water district in Alabama, serving more than 600,000 customers in five counties and maintaining a system of some 3,900 miles of transmission lines.

Our assessment evaluated the water district’s susceptibility to potential threats and identified corrective measures to reduce those risks. We looked at threats to ground and surface water, transmission, treatment and distribution systems and took into account multiple types of risk — from trespassing and vandalism to inside sabotage and terrorist attacks.

With more than 25 years in the U.S. Secret Service and a number of years as the director of corporate security for a major regional bank, I had a strong background in physical security. My recommendations included a prioritized plan of security implementation, upgrades and technologies. After the vulnerability assessment was completed, I was hired by the district to implement my recommendations. Within three years, we went from almost nothing to a first-class security department and operation.

I knew going in that this type of project can not be effectively done in a piecemeal fashion. It takes the support of senior management and a committed board of directors. The Birmingham Water Works board of directors was the biggest asset and ally I had. I could not find any available federal funding for water works security enhancements at the time, but my board of directors, recognizing the importance of security and safety for its customers, was willing to appropriate up to $15 million and give me carte blanche to hire the people necessary to get the job done. All of the funds for this project came from the board and there were no outside sources of funding.

When I started at Birmingham Water Works, there were a few closed circuit cameras — mostly in the interior of the plants. They were used specifically to complement the supervisory control data acquisition (SCADA) system to provide live visual verification of system function and performance. These cameras were trained on processing valves, gauges and other critical parts of the facilities.
If the computerized system sends notification of a problem with water levels, pressure or any other abnormality, these interior cameras were activated to confirm or validate the alarm.

Support for the SCADA system is essential, and the cameras served a valuable management function — but they did not address real physical security needs. One of my first recommendations was a video system with additional exterior cameras that could provide added sets of eyes to monitor central sites and our remote locations — some of which are more than 60 miles from our administration building.
I went to ADT Security Services, and working with integrated systems manager Sean Mahoney, I told them what I wanted to do and they worked with me to put together the right technology and equipment to make the system work. Today, we have assembled a sophisticated, integrated security system with network-based video and access control. We have more than 300 cameras monitoring the exterior and interior of the district’s 16 locations in Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, St. Clair and Walker counties.

One of our biggest obstacles is the large distance covered by the district. The camera system allows us to effectively monitor and secure our facilities both far and near without the added expense of guards and large numbers of security personnel. It enables us to minimize our expenses while maximizing our capabilities.

The system uses high-resolution, day/night cameras from Bosch and Pelco. The compact design of the cameras gave us flexibility and saved costs, and we were able to limit the number of cameras we needed and streamline maintenance by putting them on 50-foot camera poles with integral lowering systems from Birmingham-based MG Squared. The video data is transmitted over the network and then managed by Genetec’s Omincast video management system.

Using both wired and wireless connections, video from the cameras in all facilities, including the main center, pumping and intake stations, filter plants and treatment centers is sent via the district’s wide area network (WAN) to a recently completed emergency operations center. The center is manned 24 hours a day, and all video is monitored from this central location. The center includes an ultra-modern video wall with high-end video screens, enabling security staff to get quality images of the entire Birmingham Water Works system and the surrounding city and county.

As with any security system of this size and sophistication, there have been technical obstacles. The biggest one we have faced is getting the connectivity and bandwidth to bring video back from the remote locations to our operations center. Many of our facilities are in remote locations — where even cellular phone service is often non-existent. Obtaining the needed links to the network has been a challenge that we are still working to overcome.

District facilities have also been outfitted with electronic fences that integrate with the security cameras. When a person or object comes in contact with the electronic fence, pan/tilt/zoom cameras from opposing angles are activated and send live video to the command center as well as video five seconds prior to and after contact. This enables security personnel to fully assess the situation and determine what triggered the alarm. It can establish if there is a real threat or if an animal or tree branch has brushed up against the fence. It can save the district the time and expense of sending staff 60 miles to investigate.

Controlling and tracking who enters our facilities is another critical part of our security system. Working with ADT, we have integrated access control in all facilities with more than 600 access control cards for employees, vendors, contractors and consultants. The system also includes networked-based audio. Each location has an access card reader, intercom and camera at the gated entrance. Visitors without an access card can push a button activating the intercom system and cameras. Security personnel in the command center are able to see and talk with the visitor and either grant or deny access to the facility.
The biggest obstacle I have to combat every day — and I believe this is true for all security managers or directors — is complacency. The more time passes without an incident, the more complacent everyone in an organization becomes. It is human nature. One thing we do to help overcome that tendency is to test our systems often and randomly to make sure we are prepared. At Birmingham Water Works, I routinely use what we call a “red team” to try to breach our security. The team tries various ways to defeat the system. This helps us to see if the safeguards are in place and working properly, or if we need to make adjustments.

Our approach to implementing this system has been systematic and comprehensive. We are currently about 75-percent complete with our enhancements. During the next two years, we will complete the final four locations and all facilities will be upgraded with systems in place and operational.

Our next steps will be to continue the work that we have been doing and make improvements and technology upgrades as appropriate. We are currently working with ADT to evaluate analytic camera technology and software that could put even more intelligence and integration into our system. These new intelligent cameras along, with increase bandwidth, could give us the ability to monitor our facilities even more effectively with increase efficiencies.

Like much of day-to-day life, the public takes for granted the safety of their water. When they turn on the tap in their homes they expect a safe, clean product. We want to make sure that we are doing everything we can as security professionals to bring that level of safety and security to people’s everyday lives.

Terry Oden is the security manager for Birmingham Water Works. He has an extensive background in the security industry with 25 years in the Secret Service.

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