Protecting the grid from active shooters

June 1, 2016
New NERC-CIP guidelines require utilities to better address threats posed by gunfire

The facts are simple, straightforward, well-known, and unsettling. Gunfire and power utility substations are not friends. There are people in America with the means and motivation to disrupt local, regional and even national power distribution. In 2013, the Metcalf substation shooting highlighted the vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid and became a case study regarding the expense of repairing and hardening of electrical system assets. Metcalf was an iconic event but multiple other shootings preceded it and have followed in Florida, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, and Arizona. The risks and impacts are potentially severe both to the managing Bulk Electric System (BES) entities and the customers they serve.

Substations are nearly ideal targets for terrorists or malcontents, as they are generally in remote or isolated locations, do not require sniper levels of accuracy to sustain severe damage, and don't shoot back. High-voltage transformers are particularly targetable, as most are custom-designed, replacements are not stocked, and manufacturing and installing new ones can take over a year.

The challenge remains of how to economically detect gunshots, determine a shooter’s intent and then appropriately respond to the event as part of a larger defense-in-depth solution to mitigate risk.  There are ways to improve security and mitigate power company risk while at the same time improving operational efficiency.

A combination of elements known as the five "D’s" of physical security - detecting, deterring, delaying, denying and defending - need to come immediately into play to prevent potentially catastrophic results in the event of an actual attack. Any active response to a shooting attack must follow the accurate detection, classification, and reporting of threatening gunshots.  The early detection and reporting of the shooter’s approach by foot or vehicle before they begin firing is even better. The key is rapid, accurate detection and reportage. Seconds count.  Equally important is the reduction of nuisance alerts from backfires, lightning, substation relays snapping, and other irrelevant sources.  Additional assurance is dual-sensor validation – aligning the acoustical alert with a visual confirmation – that is, slewing a camera in the right direction and using video analytics or an operator to visually confirm the presence of an active shooter.   

Industry Put on Notice

The implications of gunshot damage to substations have not gone unnoticed by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).  It has been responding, through its Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) function with increasingly stringent power industry guidelines and regulations.

Beginning in July 2016, per NERC 2016 CIP V5, third-party audits of power utility companies will commence to check on progress. This adds another dimension of urgency for companies to take gunshot and other physical attacks very seriously and to invest resources to meet the CIP requirements for deterring and responding to such events. Many BES early adopter companies are already actively taking steps to include gunshot detection for their critical assets.

Being Proactive is Beneficial 

Most challenges also present opportunities, and leveraging such opportunities can deliver a range of beneficial results to a company. The challenge is to strengthen gunshot and other physical security; while the opportunity is to prevent this strengthening from being merely one more monetary drain on the company's resources.  Having an effective, comprehensive physical security system helps mitigate these risks and by so doing impresses the customer base, delivers good PR, and cuts losses, bringing more dollars to the company bottom line.

The reaction of the press, bloggers, and other sources of information and opinion to gunshot incidents is apparent from earlier events in the news. The consequences of gunshot attacks range from "dramatic to dire," so is the internet and mainstream media’s reporting about them. Some blame will be assigned to the utility for power losses of an extended period of time in a shooting or similar incident. On the other hand, news of a power utility actively buttressing its physical security, should be, welcomed by the public and, in particular, the company’s clientele, providing positive branding and customer relations.

A comprehensive physical security system, intelligently assembled, can improve operational efficiencies in other ways. One obvious way to foster a lean but effective security operation is to leverage sensors that can detect and classify more than one threat type to minimize the amount of equipment needed to provide situational awareness around the site. Utilities can then leverage data and information fusion to automate the process as much as possible to generate a common operating picture; reducing the level of effort required for monitoring. Using scalable systems to monitor multiple sites and deliver actionable information to a single screen or even to a smartphone increases operational efficiency.  Systems that improve accuracy and timeliness reduce or eliminate the need for costly human resource patrols in some cases, further improving operational efficiencies and minimizing resources spent on unnecessary responses.

In addition, there are other physical security system attributes that should be considered for substation gunshot security applications.

  • Many substations already have passive (e.g., fences) or active (e.g., cameras, motion sensors) security in place; any purchase to extend security coverage for gunshots should easily integrate with existing systems.
  • Consider whether your comprehensive physical security system should comprise multiple, one-off subsystems, each detecting and alerting on one type of threat, or if your system is more efficient and effective consisting of just a few subsystems, with multipurpose sensors and fused data and/or information.
  • Except for assets on exceptionally flat terrain, non-line-of-sight system elements will strengthen the capabilities of any comprehensive physical security system.
  • Timeliness is essential. Gunshot alerts that must be relayed from place to place or that require human participation in data evaluation waste precious minutes.
  • Range and accuracy are important. There is always a gunshot muzzle report, but shots may or may not pass close enough to sensors for their shock waves to be sensed, and at least early shots may not produce impact signals from substation structures. Dangerous projectiles come from many gun types and calibers, and may be subsonic or supersonic in nature as they approach their targets. Being able to detect and report gunshots from distance is essential.
  • Nuisance alert behavior of candidate security systems should be considered. Backfiring vehicles, fireworks, lightning, and several equipment elements within substations generate sharp reports easily confused with gunshots.
  • Covertness is another consideration. Some gunshot detection systems must be vulnerably placed in plain view to function, while others may be buried underground, undetectable by threats.
  • As the norm for power companies is to manage multiple substations for power distribution, scalability to central station monitoring of all assets is important for proper event response, particularly for coordinated attacks.
  • Any security system must fully support or exceed NERC CIP regulations.

Shooting to disable portions of America’s electric power distribution system is a recent phenomenon, and has been shown to potentially have a cascading effect, which could result in local, regional, or even national power outages for dangerous lengths of time. Establishing appropriate physical security to deter or rapidly respond to such attacks is becoming increasingly urgent, from both security and regulations perspectives. Companies establishing or augmenting their security in this area have many considerations for ensuring they acquire the optimal capability for protecting their assets.

About the Author: As the Director of Quantum Technology Science's Product Marketing team, Kevin works collaboratively between buyers, customers, analysts, engineers, sales, and our channel partners to deliver covert security solutions to the Oil & Gas and Electrical Utilities markets.