Companies within the utilities sector play a critical role on many levels. They service our homes, businesses, and industries with electricity, gas, and water and are also major employers vital to economic performance. In the UK, for example, the power and energy industry alone accounts for nearly 5% of the GDP.

This sector, however, is also under pressure. In addition to reliably and safely supplying the utilities we depend on – with a constant awareness of employee and public safety – companies face tighter budgets, increased threats of disruptive attacks, and stringent regulatory requirements.

In this blog, we discuss how many providers are looking to their surveillance solutions for valuable support in the face of these evolving challenges.

How has the utilities sector traditionally used surveillance?

Surveillance has traditionally been used as one specific security measure – monitored and managed in isolation from other on-site systems – with a remit restricted to visual threat detection, verification and evidence gathering.

Historically, this is how the sector has approached all systems relating to asset protection, from intruder detection, access control, and ANPR to fire detection and perimeter security – as independent solutions, each with its own scope and clearly defined boundary.

How has this changed?

Now, those systems are coming together to unify the data they deliver. The emergence of open-architecture security and surveillance solutions allows cameras (analogue and IP), intruder alarms, fire detection, access control, critical asset tracking and building management systems to not only communicate with each other but also be monitored and managed on a single user platform from one location – at a central control centre for example.

Utility companies using these solutions are better equipped to detect potential threats more quickly and accurately. Data from multiple sources provides a wider context and lets operators see the whole picture. Combined with improvements in, and increased appetite for, camera technology – including thermal and hazardous-area cameras – the potential to capture quality information has been dramatically enhanced.

How is this step change supporting utilities companies?

It means utility companies are better equipped to detect and respond to threats quickly or even prevent possible incidents from occurring in the first place – for example, through preventative maintenance – thereby reducing the likelihood of factors that significantly impact bottom-line and operational performance, most notably service downtime.

What is an example of how potential threats can be detected?

One example could be the movement of assets such as cable drums. This might be considered a ‘normal’ occurrence on site and could easily be dismissed as such, but in conjunction with unusual or unauthorised staff ID access, the movement of assets could actually indicate a potential issue. An integrated system can be set to detect data correlations of this nature and alert operators accordingly – immediately streaming live video footage from cameras nearest the cable drum location and at the ID breach.

Another example might be a perimeter breach incident – perhaps at an uncrewed substation. In this instance, movement on the perimeter line would trigger an alert on an operator’s screen. Using an integrated solution, this could be accompanied by footage for breach verification and guidance on security deployment based on the type of breach identified.

Utilities estates can be vast and incorporate multiple sub-sites, often in remote or unmanned locations. Is this an issue in terms of taking an integrated approach?

No, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. An integrated solution ensures that video, audio, PIR activations and other alarm inputs from any number of locations can be easily viewed and managed locally, i.e. by a team based on-site and streamed via a wired or wireless network to a central command base for remote incident detection and response. It also offers an added level of redundancy and resilience between sites, delivering customers peace of mind regarding the security of the integrated solution.

It is particularly important to emphasise the 'response' element here. You see, as well as detecting and alerting operators to threats – accompanied by live visual and audio feed – these systems can be programmed to trigger automated workflows that guide operators through ‘next steps’. This enables remote actions, such as immediate area or perimeter lockdowns, process or supply shutdowns or ID card cancellations should a threat be detected.

The system could also be programmed to immediately alert local emergency responders should certain data sets be captured, ensuring that on-site assistance is deployed as quickly as possible in the case of a malicious attack or fire.

So, the use of integrated surveillance isn’t limited to security?

Not at all. In many countries, utilities companies are fined for every minute that supply is disrupted or down. Mitigating risk and speedily resolving issues that may cause network problems – from mechanical failure or equipment damage to fire or flooding – is therefore hugely important and easily achievable with this approach.

It’s worth noting that they are now integrating data from drone technology to identify potential infrastructure issues, such as overhanging trees, and deploy maintenance teams before an actual problem occurs.

Integrating access control and associated systems, with camera monitoring and control, also provides a much clearer picture of who is on-site at any one time, their status, and how that relates to site processes and events. This has significant benefits in terms of improved site safety.

What is an example of how integrated surveillance can provide wider situational awareness?

One example is that sensors at a gas plant could be set to alert operators to dangerous gas levels and trigger live video streaming from cameras in the immediate vicinity. Individuals identified from the video footage captured could then have their site clearance automatically upgraded, ensuring each person can evacuate via the nearest available exit.

Another scenario could be a storm that damages the site infrastructure. In this situation, an intelligently integrated surveillance solution would enable operators to place potentially dangerous areas on lockdown until a visual sweep, using standard and thermal cameras, has been conducted to identify specific issues. Engineers could then be notified of exact hazard coordinates and dispatched to perform essential maintenance.

The utilities sector employs many lone workers who aren’t always based at one specific location. How can operators use surveillance to protect them?

As you say, many utility providers employ lone workers to monitor and maintain estate assets, often in remote locations. Focusing only on visual data could be a challenge for surveillance operators.

However, with integrated solutions, data signifying threats or incidents can come in various forms, meaning there is greater scope for protecting lone workers. For example, staff could be issued with sensors that monitor heart rate or whether the individual is vertical or horizontal (signifying potential collapse or a fall). These sensors can feed directly into the security system and, should well-being be at risk, alert control room operators to their location using GPS coordinates to deploy support.

Alternatively, integrating with telecommunications solutions would enable an organisation to set up pre-programmed codes that workers can text to automatically update control teams on their status from a safety and operational perspective. For example, texting 456 might signify a safely completed reservoir perimeter inspection. If the time period between a worker logging in and completing a task is too long, an automated workflow might be generated, prompting head office teams to check in with the worker to confirm all is well.

Where is the future of utilities surveillance solutions heading?

Ultimately, the biggest potential lies in taking interoperability ‘beyond the sector’ and using it as a connecting force to enable collaborative working between the key public and private organisations critical to our towns and cities – utilities, transport, emergency services, hospitals, etc. It’s what Smart Cities are all about – authorities and agencies adopting a connected approach to data to improve the efficiency and efficacy of our urban infrastructures.

This won’t materialise immediately, but progress and interoperability is happening now. In the meantime, utilities providers have a huge opportunity to streamline and secure operations on their estates by adopting an integrated approach.