Lightning Rod

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A target for theft, terrorism and idle curiosity, utility EPCOR turns to an outside provider for its security needs

Linda Johnson, Canadian Security Magazine
January / February 2012

Even before 9/11, utility companies faced daunting security threats. For, as long as there have been electrical stations and wastewater plants, there’s also been opposition, extreme weather and simple human curiosity.

"With the electricity sector, it’s like lightning, like controlled lightning. And we want to make sure people are properly protected — more from themselves than from anybody else," says Scott Yost, senior manager of security and contingency at Edmonton, Alta.-based EPCOR Utilities.

EPCOR runs electrical transmission, water and wastewater treatment facilities in Alberta, British Columbia and Arizona. It distributes 14 per cent of the energy used in Alberta and, in Edmonton, it provides electricity to more than 300,000 residential and commercial consumers.

"We’ve been very fortunate. We have a lot of mitigation strategies in place. And a lot of those strategies evolved with our relationship with the Corps Commissionaires," Yost says of the security service that has been protecting the utility’s critical infrastructure since 1998.

Headquartered in Edmonton, the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, Northern Alberta Division, provides EPCOR with everything from static guards to remote video monitoring and executive protection. "Our division really is a one-stop shop for all of EPCOR’s security needs," says CEO John Slater.

Right now, he says, the most common security problem affecting electrical and water infrastructure is copper wire theft. As metal prices have climbed to unprecedented levels in the last few years, people have targeted cell towers, construction sites and transformer stations for their large stores of copper. The division’s concern, Slater adds, is not only to prevent theft but also to reduce the risk of thieves injuring or killing themselves. Many are amateurs and don’t understand the danger they face when they start cutting high voltage lines.

"It’s a huge problem. We’ve had people come down the North Saskatchewan River in boats, cut through the fence and roll spools of the stuff down the sides of the riverbank. They’re very creative," he says.

People threaten infrastructure for other reasons, too, Yost says. Sometimes, it’s customers whose electricity has been cut off for nonpayment; other times, it’s homeowners who don’t want a pipeline going through their backyard. But often, it’s people who are just curious. A couple of years ago, a person broke into a substation to steal grounding straps and electrocuted himself. He survived but caused damage that could have led to someone else getting hurt.

"It wasn’t the fact that he broke into the substation that worried us; the grounding straps were nothing to replace from a monetary perspective. But what happens if that hole in the fence that he cut was still there a day later and some 12-year-old kid comes by, hears all this cool buzzing equipment, goes in, and he hurts himself as well?" says Yost.

"It’s not just terrorism — terrorism was foremost in 2004," he adds. "Now, it’s much more an overall approach for the protection of people from their own interest, their interest in where their water comes from, where their electricity comes from."

The Corps’ work for EPCOR has grown over the years. At first, they simply provided static guards. Then, because facilities are large and often far apart, they added mobile patrols. In 2010, they introduced remote video verification, a technology they started using at smaller companies in 2001.

"We pioneered remote video verification here. This was leading-edge technology in the Canadian security industry," Slater says.

"I still have the only operations centre of its kind in Canada that I’m aware of where we do remote video monitoring, GPS, asset tracking and work-alone monitoring — all out of my operations centre."

Monitoring at the central station, at division headquarters in downtown Edmonton, is all event based. Dozens of cameras cover multiple sites, but nothing appears on screen until an event triggers a sensor in a camera. An audible alarm goes off at the operations centre, and operators pull up the camera.

"And the immediate thing is, 'look, it’s a moose rubbing up against a fence, not to worry.' Or, 'look, it’s two guys crawling under the fence. Now we have to take action,'" Slater says.

Remote monitoring is in place at all EPCOR critical infrastructure and substations and is, Yost says, an important part of the company’s security. With real-time verification and virtual patrol, they can quickly see whether something is wrong and take steps to protect a facility.

Several years ago, the Corps stopped providing remote video monitoring. They began offering it again only when some major clients, including EPCOR, asked them to.

"We were looking at doing it in-house, but it just didn’t make sense for us business-wise," Yost says. "And now we have a total of eight substations that we’re monitoring with them, and we’ll monitor another two [this] year."

And, unlike before, the video system is owned and operated by EPCOR. "We transferred the platform over to the Commissionaires. We run it off an access control platform," he adds. "We provided them with the desktop and the client software, and they provided us with the monitoring capability."

With remote monitoring, Yost says, EPCOR can comply with Alberta legislation covering the protection of critical infrastructure, a section of which requires utilities to have in place an alarm response plan. Real-time video monitoring also eliminates many nuisance alarms that require authentication because, without it, the only way to verify an event is to send someone to the site.

"That is not always the easiest thing to do, depending on the time of year, the location of the infrastructure and whether [the Commissionaires] are busy with other alarm events."

Six years ago, Commissionaires introduced a client service co-ordinator, a Corps employee who works with EPCOR security and who oversees all Corps staff at the utility. He deals with day-to-day matters, such as making sure patrols are done and dealing with disciplinary issues.

"He’s basically one of our team. He works in our area, and we see him every day. He gives us updates on things that we need to know about. He follows up on alarms, does tons of paperwork and updates standing operating procedures. It’s excellent," Yost says.

The Commissionaires was formed in 1925 to provide employment to veterans of the Canadian military and the RCMP. Today, 17 independent, not-for-profit companies across the country employ more than 20,000 security professionals.

"We do employ non-veterans as well, but our roots and what sets us apart from the industry are our large number of vets who provide the leadership and the discipline characteristics that they developed while in uniform," says Slater, who served 31 years in the Canadian Forces as an army officer with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

Slater has about 840 uniformed Commissionaires in the Northern Alberta division, which was established in 1939 and includes Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. About 40 are on the EPCOR contract, though the number changes with demand. They also have four or five mobile patrols on every night in Edmonton and the surrounding area.

"And part of their duties is to check out specific EPCOR sites, and they’re backup to my static personnel, as well," Slater says.

Since 1998, EPCOR has issued an RFP every three years for the security contract, worth $1.9 million annually. Commissionaires has always won, Yost says, in part because the division provides the range of services and capabilities EPCOR needs. It can also provide staff for the company’s many special, short-term projects.

"If they have a waterline break or are putting in a new underground electrical line to a new transformer station, they will come to us and say we need someone for two months or two weeks. And we jump to the pump with quality people," Slater says.

And, Yost says, he has always been impressed by the Corps’ low turnover rate. Some of the division’s contract guards now working at infrastructure sites have been there since 1998.

"With the Corps, what I’m seeing is the people who work with this organization are very dedicated to it, and [EPCOR’s] turnover is very low. Traditionally, the turnover rate in contract security services is extremely high," he says.

"They don’t lose their people. They look after them, and they train them properly. And they deal with issues quickly and efficiency."

This year, while the division was securing the demolition of EPCOR’s 1903 Rossdale Power Plant, it was chosen to provide security at the new EPCOR Towers, the first high-rise office complex built in Edmonton in 20 years.

In addition to general security for the building, which opened in September, the Corps is also handling security for the three tenants already moved in, front counter concierge and access control in the parking.

"Everything from the underground system through the front desk through general security, up and down the building," Slater says. "We do it all."

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