Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Smile for the Camera, Mr. Copper Thief

Michael Ray Russell is MLGW's manager of electric substation engineering and operations. He wrote the following article for the American Public Power Association's monthly Public Power magazine.

Smile for the Camera, Mr. Copper Thief

MLGW, along with most electricity distributors, has experienced problems with copper thieves over the past few years. With more than 4,000 pole miles of distribution lines and more than 60 electric substations spread over a service territory of 755 square miles, it is hard to keep a constant, vigilant eye on all of the copper MLGW owns and maintains. Copper electric lines and grounds are easily accessible for thieves who are willing to take a very dangerous risk in order to make quick cash.

Copper thieves in Memphis and elsewhere have been pernicious in recent years, challenging utilities to increase security measures. There are three elements to an effective theft-prevention program: (1) detection (intrusion sensing, alarm, and entry control); (2) delay (barriers and distance); and (3) response time.

There is a lot to be said for the old saying "If they want it bad enough, you can't keep them out." (If it's not an old saying, it should be.) For example, you can install a fence and they will cut it. You can install a stronger fence, much harder to cut, and they will cut the fence ties to the fence post. You can install a stronger fence tie and they will climb over the fence. You can install a barrier like razor wire on top of the fence and they will cut the chain on your gate. You can install a stronger latching system and they will cut your lock. You can install a stronger lock and they will use a torch to cut open the gate.

This may seem ridiculous, but copper thieves in Memphis have done all of these things.

While we must do our due diligence to provide barriers against theft, which also provide general safety protection for the public, the most effective crime prevention is to patrol (detect and respond). The Memphis Police Department emphasizes the importance of patrolling at its Training Academy. Individuals who intend to commit a crime will not knowingly do so in the presence of a police officer; therefore, they are less likely to commit crimes if they are not sure when and where an officer will show up.

Most utilities, including MLGW, do not have the resources to patrol all electric facilities. MLGW is using technology to effectuate thorough patrols.
Under Tennessee law, copper theft is a felony. Arrest and conviction of thieves is our strongest tool for preventing further thefts. However, in order to arrest and convict thieves, you have to catch them. MLGW and the Memphis Police Department have successfully arrested and convicted several copper thieves.

In the summer and fall of 2008, MLGW had a repetitive problem at a few of our remote substations with thieves stealing copper grounds. The repeated thefts caused us embarrassment and frustration. Thieves would cut the fence or cut the lock on the gate to gain entry. Everything we did on the property only slowed them down a little, but never stopped these determined thieves. Several attempted stakeouts by MLGW security personnel were unsuccessful. No break-ins occurred while we were watching. Then, thieves would break in shortly after we stopped watching.

In September 2008, while attending a Tennessee Valley Public Power Association (TVPPA) conference, we were introduced to a portable, hidden camera that would detect motion and e-mail a picture via wireless communication to a personal digital assistant. This would allow those receiving the email to determine whether it was a false alarm or if security/police needed to be dispatched to the location. MLGW was in the process of installing permanent cameras at some of its most important interconnections with TVA; however, the cost made it prohibitive to install at all locations. This portable camera was much more cost effective.

MLGW purchased two of the cameras for a test project. This Internet pole camera system allows you to pan, tilt, zoom, and auto focus directly from your personal computer. The camera system sends e-mails and text messages when movement is detected, eliminating the need for constant monitoring. Custom concealment packages are designed for specific security needs. Concealed cameras are ideal for public utilities to help prevent copper theft. A camera can be concealed in station service transformer housing and blend in with substation equipment. The camera features a 26 optical zoom. The standard camera system provides color daytime photos. At night the camera converts to a black and white for low-light capability.

Less than 12 hours after the camera was up and running, we caught a man breaking into a substation and stealing copper ground wires. We received an e-mail with a picture attached. Police were notified, given a description, and the thief was apprehended quickly, not far from the MLGW property. When utility security arrived a few minutes after the police, they confirmed the theft, the value, and identified the culprit.

The thief apparently had been a one-man operation—after his arrest, MLGW's copper-theft problem at the substations abated. MLGW also received confirmation from surrounding utilities of a suspect who had stolen copper from them matching the description of the man we caught. The thief claimed this was his first time to commit such a crime. However, MLGW had evidence to the contrary which linked him to some of the previous copper thefts at the same location he was caught. For example, he was driving a Honda with a broken Honda emblem on the back. In one earlier incident, the thief drove into our substation after cutting the gate open and used his vehicle to pull the ground wire up and out of the ground.

MLGW has a message for the copper thieves: The next time you are in an MLGW electric substation to steal copper grounds, smile big and pretty for the camera. We will try to get your good side.

1 comment:

OMD Denis said...

Good article share about Smile for the Camera, Mr. Copper Thief" ......
Copper Theft Prevention in Los Angeles

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