Protecting power grids is essential to deliver electricity that serves millions of consumers. Transmission substations are a component of the power infrastructure that presents unique security challenges. These important facilities often sit out in the open, in remote locations, and were historically protected by little more than cameras or chain-link fences.

Much of the current concern about securing electrical substations in the United States originated in response to a 2013 sniper attack, using military-style weapons, on Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation in Coyote, Calif., near San Jose. Gunmen fired on 17 electrical transformers, resulting in more than $15 million in damage. The crime is still unsolved.

Security Critical Infrastructure

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s Critical Infrastructure Protection (NERC/CIP) guidelines emerged in the aftermath of the attack, triggering growth in security spending to protect utilities.

The latest NERC/CIP Version 6 standards were issued in January 2016, with deadlines of various phases falling in July 2016, April 2017, and the final phase to be completed in September 2018. The earlier deadlines were for high- and medium-risk facilities, and the future deadline covers lower-risk areas. The standards target four areas of concern securing utility sites: security awareness, physical security, remote access connections, and incident response. Although medium- and high-impact facilities tend to be more critical, the connected nature of utility infrastructure means that security is only as strong as the weakest link.

Perimeter Security Requirements

Every facility has a baseline requirement for perimeter security protection around the site, although medium- and high-impact sites will have more stringent requirements. The geography surrounding sites – Is it an urban area or rural? Does the surrounding elevation provide additional lines of sight? – also impacts the types of systems they require.

A lack of similar incidents since the 2013 Metcalf attack could fuel debate on whether the extra security was necessary, and could even lead to a sense of complacency. “A lot of money has been spent on fancy systems at the top tier,” says Greg Hendrix, Sales Lead at Tyco Integrated Security. “But nothing has happened since Metcalf. The concern is that we could lull ourselves into a sense of everything’s OK. We need to find a balance between what’s appropriate and what isn’t, and it’s a moving target. There is no silver bullet.” 

With 35 years in the physical security industry, Hendrix manages a specialized team of 12 pre-sale field engineers that focus on designing electronic security solutions for complex needs as part of Johnson Controls’ Centers of Excellence network.

Cameras And Access Control For High-security Facilities

Hendrix assisted one utility industry customer as a primary design engineer for nine high-impact sites. The sites were high- to medium-tier sites that are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. Thermal cameras with analytics were positioned to detect intrusions and discern between wildlife and human intruders. Avoiding false alarms is crucial if, for instance, 300 cameras are monitored at a single site. The analytics systems were augmented with pan-tilt-zoom cameras that could be directed to view intruders. Analytics zones were used to trigger large LED light panels to flood various zones with light in case of an intruder. If an intruder gets even closer, it would trigger a recorded voice to tell them to leave.

Metal fences that were 12 feet high and even concrete were used to protect lines of sight to provide a ballistics barrier against gunshots. Mountainous or hilly areas presented additional challenges, as someone could position themselves above the fence line. In some cases, automated gates use multi-factor access control readers (cards and PINs) to allow vehicles to pass and then to close behind them. In other instances, pedestrian-only gates are used, requiring vehicles to remain parked outside the perimeter. Video surveillance watches entrances and exits.

Compliance With NERC/CIP Regulations

Connecting IP cameras into a utility’s IT system, or even using a laptop to program a video system, can introduce cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The idea is not to contribute to the cybersecurity challenges utilities already face to protect the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) monitoring systems and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) used in daily operations.

“The physical threat is evident, but the cybersecurity threat is not so obvious,” says Hendrix. “To focus on one without the other doesn’t make a lot of sense. The physical security folks focus on how we can physically detect and deter, and promote visibility. But we have to remind ourselves that the security of the cyber connection is critical. Security awareness applies to us as integrators as much as customers. We have to find an IT guru within the organization and make sure we are working together.”

Failure to adhere to NERC/CIP requirements, which are enforced using audits, trigger fines that could put the profitability of private utility companies at risk. “There is an opportunity for integrators to partner with customers and identify how to appropriately meet the requirements within budget and get these projects done,” says Hendrix. Among the audit requirements is a log showing who comes and goes at a facility; access control systems collect that information and provide the needed documentation. Employees are issued cards, and contractors and other visitors are required to be escorted by approved personnel into and out of a site. For frequent visitors and contractors, a credential can be issued. Promoting awareness of such policies and requirements is another factor in CIP compliance.

Download PDF version

Author Profile

Larry Anderson Editor, SourceSecurity.com

An experienced journalist and long-time presence in the US security industry, Larry is SecurityInformed.com's eyes and ears in the fast-changing security marketplace, attending industry and corporate events, interviewing security leaders and contributing original editorial content to the site. He leads SecurityInformed's team of dedicated editorial and content professionals, guiding the "editorial roadmap" to ensure the site provides the most relevant content for security professionals.

In case you missed it

Top 10: What Were Security Professionals Reading About In 2017?
Top 10: What Were Security Professionals Reading About In 2017?

Our most popular articles in 2017 reflected changing trends in the U.S. security market, from deep learning to protection of mobile workers, from building automation to robotics. Again in 2017, the most read articles tended to be those that addressed timely and important issues in the security marketplace. In the world of digital publishing, it’s easy to know what content resonates with the market: Our readers tell us with their actions; i.e., where they click.   Let’s look back at the Top 10 most-clicked articles we posted in 2017. They are listed in order here with the author’s name and a brief excerpt.  1. Las Vegas Massacre Demands Reevaluation of Hospitality Sector Security The Oct. 1, 2017, sniper attack from a 32nd-floor room at Mandalay Bay, overlooking 22,000 people attending a country music festival, has been compared to “shooting fish in a barrel.” When the bullets rained down, there was nowhere to hide. The attack came from outside the “perimeter” of the event, so any additional screening of attendees would not have prevented it. There are also implications of the Las Vegas massacre for the hospitality industry. Hotels and resorts such as Mandalay Bay have not generally embraced technologies like the explosives scanners or X-ray machines used at airport terminals, at least not in the United States. 2. Deep Learning Algorithms Broaden the Scope of Video Analytics [Zvika Ashani] Until recently there have been minimal applications of Machine Learning used in video analytics products, largely due to high complexity and high resource usage, which made such products too costly for mainstream deployment. However, the last couple of years have seen a tremendous surge in research and advances surrounding a branch of Machine Learning called Deep Learning. The recent increased interest in Deep Learning is largely due to the availability of graphical processing units (GPUs). GPUs can efficiently train and run Deep Learning algorithms The last couple of years have seen a tremendous surge in research and advances surrounding a branch of Machine Learning called Deep Learning 3. Home Security Systems: Why You Need to Upgrade From 3G to 4G Technology [Missy Dalby] The current communication method for most home security systems is via CDMA and 3G (GSM) technologies. With the emergence of faster, better, and stronger 4G LTE technology, carriers are migrating away from old technology standards and methods towards new, more efficient ones. As such, the older technology is going dark, and soon. Manufacturers of cellular modules have stopped making them. At the end of 2018 they will stop letting customers add systems utilizing 3G radios to their channels. 4. Diving into AI and Deep Learning at NVIDIA’s San Jose Conference [Larry Anderson] Video analytics applications fall under NVIDIA's “AI City” initiative, which they describe as a combination of "safe cities" (video surveillance, law enforcement, forensics) and "smart cities" (traffic management, retail analytics, resource optimization). Depending on the application, AI City technology must function in the cloud, on premises and/or at the edge. NVIDIA’s new Metropolis initiative offers AI at every system level, from the Jetson TX2 "embedded supercomputer" available at the edge, to on-premises servers (using NVIDIA’s Tesla and Quadro) to cloud systems (using NVIDIA’s DGX). 5. Physical Security Evolves to Protect Mobile Workers [Annie Asrari] With an increasing number of employees traveling and working remotely, the days of a dedicated worker who commutes to and from a single location every day of the week are just about over. Security professionals must take a second look at their policies and procedures for employee safety. To protect employees in this new mobile world, where people, assets and brand reputation threats may face higher than normal levels of safety and security risks, businesses must focus less on securing physical, four-wall perimeters and instead take a global approach to security that focuses on protecting traveling, remote and lone workers. Businesses must take a global approach to security that focuses on protecting traveling, remote and lone workers 6. New Security Technologies Driving Excitement on Busy ISC West Day One [Larry Anderson] ISC West in Las Vegas kicked off April 5 with an expanding focus on new technologies and new applications, including some that go beyond any narrow definition of security. “Technology is disrupting the market and executives are taking our solutions beyond security,” says Moti Shabtai, CEO and President of Qognify. “They are starting with security and quickly moving to other risk and business continuity issues in the organizations. They want a clear return on investment (ROI), which we can deliver if we move from covering a limited island of ‘security’ issues and give them the value of also managing risk, safety, and operations.” 7. Optimizing Building Automation for Good Return on Investment [Minu Youngkin] Smart buildings are on the rise around the world, not only because a growing number of companies are considering their environmental impact, but also because of the dramatic cost savings that can be realized through integration. In every building that has an integrated security and access control system, an opportunity awaits to also integrate the building’s energy use, water use, ventilation and more. The key is to effectively convey the tremendous potential of this new technology to the end user. 8. ISC West 2017: How Will IT and Consumer Electronics Influence the Secuirty Industry? [Fredrik Nilsson] A good way to predict trends [at the upcoming ISC West show] is to look at what’s happening in some larger, adjacent technology industries, such as IT and consumer electronics. Major trends on these fronts are the most likely to influence what new products will be launched in the electronic security industry. Proof in point is H.264, an advanced compression technology ratified in 2003 and adopted as the new standard by the consumer industry a few years later. By 2009, it became the new compression standard for the video surveillance industry as well. Violence will continue to challenge the healthcare sector in the future 9. The Future of Healthcare Security: Violence Response and Emergency Preparedness [Ben Scaglione and David LaRose] Violence will continue to challenge the healthcare sector in the future. Domestic violence, child abuse, behavioral health, drug and alcohol abuse will all continue to challenge hospital staff in the Emergency Department, Women’s Health, and behavioral health areas. The Hazard Vulnerability Assessments (HVA) along with facility wide risk assessments helps in defining risk severity and identifying historical patterns of violence. 10. Robot Revolution: Uncovering the Real Value of Security Robots [Steve Reinharz] The security coverage that a robot offers in the case of a shopping mall can be easily overshadowed by the fact that the machines seem to serve to entertain the population. Instead, security robots can best be utilized for more high-level roles, such as in critical infrastructure sites, corporate campuses and educational facilities, where wide, expansive spaces require continuous protection. In these locales, security can be difficult to achieve, as cost, location and lack of resources make the logistics of deployment difficult.

How To Prepare For Active Shooter Incidents | Infographic
How To Prepare For Active Shooter Incidents | Infographic

This Active Shooter infographic summarises information about trends among active shooter incidents, and outlines how an organization can develop a plan before tragedy occurs, including:   Statistics on the numbers and types of recent active shooter incidents. A profile of common traits among active shooters. How to prepare beforehand, and what to do when the police arrive. How organizational planning ensures maximum preparedness. Pre-attack indicators to look for. Be sure to share this information with coworkers and managers. Awareness is key to preventing active shooter incidents, and to minimising their tragic consequences. When sharing this infographic on your website, please include attribution to  SecurityInformed.com More resources for active shooter preparedness: How hospitals can prepare for active shooter attacks Six steps to survive a mass shooting Technologies to manage emergency lockdowns  How robots can check for active shooters  Background checks to minimise insider threats Gunfire detection technologies for hospitals, retail and office buildings 21 ways to prevent workplace violence in your organisation Non-invasive security strategies for public spaces    

Intelligent Surveillance: AI For Police Body-worn Cameras
Intelligent Surveillance: AI For Police Body-worn Cameras

Working together to develop an intelligent body-worn camera for public safety users, Motorola Solutions and artificial intelligence (AI) company Neurala are demonstrating how AI can be added to everyday devices such as smart phones using existing hardware platforms.  AI software, working at the “edge,” provides the capability to add AI functionality to existing cameras, such as Motorola’s Si500 body-worn camera. An agreement to develop the products follows Motorola’s strategic investment in Neurala in January 2017. “The technology is real, as our prototypes have demonstrated,” says Massimiliano “Max” Versace, Neurala CEO. “The technology will mature dramatically by the end of the year.” A final, marketable product from Motorola might be a year or more away, and the timing will depend on extensive testing in the meantime, he says. The goal is to enable police officers to more efficiently search for objects or persons of interest, such as missing children or suspects. Adapting Hardware For Artificial Intelligence Neurala’s learning capabilities “at the edge” are hardware-agnostic; its software-only focus enables the principles of artificial intelligence to be applied to a variety of hardware platforms, including low-cost platforms used inside smart phones. Typically, cost and the need for speed are limitations that determine what hardware can be leveraged using the software. The goal is to enable police officers to more efficiently search for objects or persons of interest, such as missing children or suspects In the case of the Motorola body-worn camera, AI functionality is being added to existing hardware in the device, which is much like a smart phone encased in the form factor of a body-cam. Today’s smart phones include cameras, gyroscopes and accelerometers to provide sufficient data to drive AI applications. Software adapts existing hardware to transform them into AI devices capable of continuous learning in the field. Finding Missing People In Crowds Neurala and Motorola are promoting the new agreement with a use case of how a policeman’s body-worn camera could help find a missing child in a crowd. A network “pushes” a photo of a missing child to a network of 1,000 body-worn and/or dashboard cameras in the field, which employ AI to search for the child within each camera’s field of view and then provide an alert when a match is found. The cameras operate passively, without involving police officers, in effect automating the process without police officers having to look at every face in a crowd. AI’s contribution is to eliminate the need for humans to do repetitive or boring work, such as look at hours of video footage. Neurala began working in AI 11 years ago, long before the current buzz in the market. In a sense, awareness has caught up with the company, which has been developing its technologies ahead of the curve. “The same technology could be applied to closed circuit cameras to detect other objects,” says Versace. “The Neurala Brain is neural network software that can be trained to find a variety of objects, such as backpacks or vehicles, in the air or on the ground.” AI’s contribution is to eliminate the need for humans to do repetitive or boring work, such as look at hours of video footage   Adding AI To Existing Security Devices Other applications are also being developed. For example, Neurala has applied its technology to help the Lindbergh Foundation fight poaching of elephants and rhinos in southern Africa using video from drones as part of its Air Shepherd Program. Neurala’s software helps human analysts by searching through terabytes of video, including infrared, in real time as the drone is flying, pinpointing animals, vehicles and poachers during the day and at night. Versace expects the first applications of AI on existing products, including cameras and drones, before it is applied to robotics and other new applications. In effect, Neurala provides a “brain plug-in” that can add AI to change an existing solution from a passive sensor to a device that is “active in its thinking,” he adds. AI is here to stay, says Versace. “The market should know that AI has reached a point of no return. Companies that don’t use AI will be left behind. It’s the way to go to amplify your output.” Does Artificial Intelligence Threaten Humans? However, the technology isn’t perfect and shouldn’t be expected to be. “It’s still a growing technology, so you can’t expect 100 percent correct performance, especially if you deploy it in a constrained environment such as a cell phone,” says Versace. “AI can approximate 90 percent of a human’s ability to detect an object, and it’s tireless and can work 24 hours a day. It’s a liberating technology that takes on jobs that are not interesting, such as looking for a backpack on a computer screen.” AI tends to engender anxiety among some, with people like Elon Musk warning of an existential threat of the technology and a coming AI apocalypse. We should all relax, says Versace. “It’s a liberating technology,” he says. “Anyone who talks about AI as dangerous is not an AI expert. The less you know about AI, the more alarmist you are.” He suggests the physical security market should “learn more about it so they won’t be so scared.”