Managing Risks in Utility and Substation Physical Security

Traditionally, electrical substation security was aimed only at preventing access to stop vandalism and improve safety. But today, security efforts have been redefined to address new threats in order to protect critical infrastructure. Substations are a critical element in the distribution of high-voltage electrical networks, and any disruption can have a severe negative impact on society.

With these new threats have come new government mandates that drive more security implementations. Fortunately, there are technologies available that can assist utilities in their compliance with the new requirements.


Today, utilities must address threats from multiple areas: theft, cyber terrorism and destructive attacks. For example, the higher price of copper has escalated many instances of stealing wires, pipes and tubing over recent years.

While in the past the electrical grid operated with concepts and mechanisms that relied on physical or manual resources, modern systems have become a technological, interoperating network of control and data acquisition. Electrical generation, a foundation of modern convenience that contributes significantly to higher quality of daily life, has grown to become a critical component of practical and economic stability – and therefore a major focus in national security, vulnerable to acts of terrorism. The challenges can be daunting.

Background: Requirements and Mandates

Following the Northeast Blackout of 1965, the original North American Electrical Reliability Council was formed in 1968 by the U.S. Department of Energy to promote power transmission system reliability in the electrical utility systems of North America, as well as to provide guideline policies for their operation and accreditation. The North America Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) succeeded the original Council in 2006 to revise the policies into enforceable standards in the United States and in some Canadian provinces.

NERC provides standards for implementing physical security at critical substations to protect personnel, prevent unauthorized access, and provide situational awareness for timely response and notification should circumstances dictate. NERC also manages a Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) program overseeing preparedness and response to serious incidents involving critical infrastructure. The CIP program originated in 1998 and was updated in 2003. It was designed to recognize that some critical infrastructure that is so vital, that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety.

The Zone Approach to Securing Critical Infrastructure

ManagingRisksInUtility_zone graphicThe best way to approach modern physical security installations for electrical generation and substations is to conceptualize the facility as having different zones. Different technologies can be applied for each zone, which are then tied together through an integrated network with video verification.

Depending on the property’s remoteness and critical importance, an operator may want different levels of physical security detection for different sites:Dividing the property into different zones allows a security operator to utilize different detection components for each zone. The importance here is to develop a system based on an open platform technology that is designed to interconnect different components from a variety of vendors. No one vendor has all the pieces to the puzzle, so it is smart to be future-ready for new capabilities that are constantly coming on the market.

Detecting approaches to the facility

Long distances — To detect approaching personnel or vehicles at a long distance from the perimeter boundary (see Zone 0 – Down Range),  compact, land-based radar systems combined with ground sensors could be used. These devices preventively notify the security operations center that a down-range object has been detected and can automatically direct IP video cameras to the location.

Within 100 meters – Closer to the perimeter boundary (see Zone 1 – near perimeter), detection technology such as thermal IP cameras, laser scanners for high contrast scenes, and IP surveillance cameras with or without embedded video analytics can be used to identify intrusions.

  • ManagingRisksInUtility_Thermal ImagingThermal cameras are used to detect heat registration day or night. They can detect a couple degrees of variation from the background.
  • Laser scanners can detect movement day or night, with pinpoint directional control. Their real strength is in high-contrast situations, such as direct sunlight or sunlight reflections off water. The detection then directs PTZ cameras to the incident location.
  • IP surveillance cameras, whether Pan Tilt Zoom (PTZ) or 360-degree digital PTZ, are easy to install. Camera coverage can be linked with sensors in other zones, and the video can be displayed on smartphone devices for remote and roving access.

Physical and virtual fences – The Zone 2 – Perimeter Line can be an actual fence or a virtual fence with lasers and ground sensors. For physical fences, there are a variety of sensor technologies, including fiber-optic cabling. The sensors can be tuned to detect vibrations from any sort of tampering with the fence material. This provides critical protection when combined with ground sensors that can detect digging activity.

Inside the fence ­– Passive infrared sensors use infrared light to detect object movement (see Zone 3 – Inside Perimeter Line). When combined with IP cameras and video analytics, this provides a complete set of detection tools.ManagingRisksInUtility_zones

Protecting infrastructure – If an intruder manages to get inside the compound (see Zone 4 – site infrastructure), there are two factors to consider: access to the building via secured doors and protection of the building exterior roof and windows. Door access should be protected with an access control system linked to the video system. Access control should include proper card enrollment, with security staff monitoring door/gate access to determine if unauthorized personnel are entering restricted areas.

The right substation security system will support interoperability between automatic sensor detection systems and verification with video surveillance systems that notify operators before an intrusion occurs. No one vendor can supply all the pieces to the puzzle, so the important factor is to ensure flexibility in the technology design. Be sure to choose a security system based on a video software management platform with open architecture in order to allow the exchange of information in real time between all the components for a systematic approach to detection, notification and response.

Milestone-RTuinzing-MSPmgrby Reinier Tuinzing, Strategic Alliance Manager, Milestone Systems