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How to Protect a Power Substation from Gunfire Attacks

Dec 8, 2022 | Ballistic Resistance, Shielding Solutions

On December 3, 2022, unknown people opened fire on two electrical substations in North Carolina, causing widespread power outages. The substations were extensively damaged by gunfire, resulting in 45,000 people losing power and millions of dollars in damage

Unfortunately, this is not the first time power subsystems have been damaged by deliberate gunfire. In April 2013, a group of unidentified people used high-powered rifles to attack a power substation in California. The attackers targeted the transformers with gunfire, disabling the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf Station, causing $15 million in damages and widespread power outages

Similarly, in 2016 a Utah man admitted to shooting into the cooling fins of a transformer radiator at the Buckskin Substation in Kane County, Utah, rupturing the radiator piping and causing the transformer to overheat and fail. The damaged transformer knocked out power in two counties and cost $380,522 to repair. 

These three attacks all share similar characteristics. One or more people with rifles target the vulnerable parts of a power substation –primarily transformers and switching equipment– with bullet fire and can cause the substation to fail in a short amount of time and then flee before law enforcement can respond.

This is possible because power substations are usually only surrounded by a chain link fence, which allows easy targeting of the substation components from a distance with a scoped rifle. While power companies are urgently trying to improve substation security with security cameras and intruder alert systems, damage to critical substation components can happen quickly and from a distance, which means that many of these crimes remain unsolved.

Can Gunfire Attacks on Power Systems be Stopped?

The natural question is, what can be done to harden these substations from gunfire attacks? During our 20-year history at TotalShield, we have been consulted by power companies for substation hardening, but the practice of physically protecting substation components from gunfire is very uncommon. In this article, we will express some of our thoughts on the challenges, and possible approaches to hardening a typical substation to a gunfire attack.

However, we will preface this discussion with a disclaimer. At TotalShield, we specialize in designing and manufacturing ballistic protective enclosures for industrial customers. Our safety barriers are typically used in industrial settings, where a ballistic item might be accidentally released during the testing of a rocket motor or in a high-speed centrifuge, for example. While our analysis, design, and testing processes do support bullet ballistic analysis and our products can protect against bullet projectiles, this is not our primary focus. The following information is presented to add to the public discussion of substation protective strategies and should not be considered as specific advice or direction.

The Challenges of Protecting a Power Substation

Power substations are difficult to protect for numerous reasons, including:

  • Substations are often located in remote areas, without neighbors to serve as witnesses, and in areas that are time-consuming for law enforcement to respond to.
  • The footprint of some power substations can be quite large. Installing ballistic-resistant barriers around the entire perimeter or many substations would be cost-prohibitive.
  • There are limitations to what can be installed within a power substation, as electrical isolation and equipment access needs require components to maintain specific clearances. This may hinder the installation of protective enclosures within an existing substation.
  • Most substations are only protected by a chain-link fence, which can be easily shot through with a rifle.

The satellite image of the Duke Energy substation (below) illustrates the challenges associated with protecting a substation from gunfire attacks. There is a large perimeter which would be extremely costly to surround with anything apart from a chain link fence. There is ample tree cover surrounding the station, providing cover to a shooter and a means of approaching the site undetected.

Satellite image of Duke Energy’s substation. Source: Google Maps.
Satellite image of Duke Energy’s substation. Source: Google Maps.

In the case of the 2013 Metcalf Power Substation attack, one or more individuals came within 30 or 40 yards of the exterior chain link fence and shot through the fence over a hundred times. This gunfire damaged and disabled 17 large high-power transformers. This shows the mentioned challenges: the attackers had easy sight lines through the exterior fence, they could maintain a significant distance to avoid being recorded on camera, and they had enough time to target 17 pieces of equipment and then flee the scene before authorities could respond. 

The need to make power stations more resilient to attack is obvious.  

Federal Requirements and Guidelines

In recognition of the rise in physical attacks on power stations, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) published the Physical Security Reliability Standard CIP-014-1 on November 20, 2014. The purpose of Reliability Standard CIP-014-1 is “to enhance physical security measures for the most critical Bulk Power System facilities and thereby lessen the overall vulnerability of the Bulk-Power System facilities against physical attacks.” 

The CIP-014-1 standard requires power system owners to:

  1. perform a risk assessment of their systems to identify critical facilities;
  2. evaluate potential threats and vulnerabilities to these critical facilities; and
  3. develop and implement a security plan designed to protect the facilities

Critics have maintained that the FERC provided private power system owners with too much latitude in terms of designating which subsystems are “critical” and in how the security plans are designed and implemented. FERC has countered this by saying that its regulatory powers over private power system owners are limited and that state and federal regulators also play a role.

If governmental regulations are not specific about the level of physical security associated with protecting a power substation from gunfire, are there practical steps that subsystem owners can take to offer at least a basic amount of protection from gunfire? Let’s explore this in detail.

TotalShield Recommendations  

It is not feasible to harden every power substation from a sustained, coordinated, and determined gunfire attack. Only the most critical power systems serving facilities of national importance can afford the immense cost associated with a hardened perimeter, armed security, protected access points, and the comprehensive surveillance systems required to deter or repel a coordinated effort to attack a substation.

Instead, we should focus on deterrence, delaying an attacker, and minimizing damage to critical elements while maximizing repairability.

Deterring and preventing an attack is our best option for preventing damage to the substation. Deterrence steps should include the following:

  • Highly visible signage warning of the consequences of an attack on a power facility
  • Monitoring signage and visible security cameras
  • Perimeter fencing with anti-climb measures
  • Electronic monitoring of intrusion, and audible alarm

Of particular interest in detecting and deterring gunfire attacks are gunfire detection systems. These systems use acoustic and/or optical sensors to detect the sound and flash of gunfire and can quickly report a gunfire attack. However, care must be taken to differentiate gunshots from false positive signals, such as vehicle backfires or the snapping of some electrical equipment.

We should implement measures meant to hinder or slow an attack. This gives law enforcement and security personnel time to respond and makes an attack less likely. Measures that can delay an attack include:

  • Obscuring the sight line into the substation, making targeting components inside the station more difficult and time-consuming.
  • Delaying the travel speed on the access road to and from the substation (if applicable) with gates, speed bumps, etc.
  • Implementing multiple perimeter fencing systems or intrusion detection systems further from the substation to slow an attacker and provide more time to respond to an incident.

Of all these countermeasures, we feel that obscuring the line of sight is the most cost-effective and practical measure to protect against gunfire attacks. By preventing a direct line-of-site, an attacker cannot target the most critical components of a power substation.

For example, the image below provided by OSHA illustrates a typical power substation. If an attacker has a clear line of sight through a chain link fence into this facility, they can target the most sensitive and critical components, such as the transformers. Obscuring the view into the substation greatly diminishes the damage associated with gunfire. This can be done with solid perimeter walls or inexpensive fence wraps used on construction sites. If enough space is available, this can be accomplished with earthen berms inside a fenced outer perimeter.

Image showing the three aspects of substations. Source: OSHA.
Image showing the three aspects of substations. Source: OSHA.

Hardening Critical Substation Elements with Bullet-Resistant Barriers

Implementing bullet-resistant barriers is the most robust protective method against gunfire attacks but also the most expensive. As mentioned previously, it is cost-prohibitive to surround many substations with a bullet-resistant wall due to the large perimeter size and high cost of construction associated with a concrete or masonry wall. However, strategic hardening can be done for the power substation’s most sensitive, expensive, and hard-to-repair elements.

By enclosing critical substation components in bullet-resistant enclosures, we can dramatically improve the durability of the substation from gunfire attacks. Protecting the transformers and switching gear is of vital importance.

One approach is to surround critical substation components with bullet-resistant glass-clad polycarbonate. TotalShield shield rooms, for example, can be designed with sliding doors or removable sections to facilitate the maintenance of the electrical equipment. 

TotalShield’s Shield Room render, designed with sliding doors to ease equipment maintenance.

The polycarbonate panels can also be fabricated with a mirror or opaque finish to prevent an attacker from seeing into the enclosure. 

TotalShield’s Shield Room render showing polycarbonate panels with an opaque finish.

Another option that is cost-effective and quick to install is using bullet-resistant Kevlar shielding blankets. These blankets can be hung from an existing fence or a new fence to provide quick bullet resistance while also obscuring line-of-sight.

Kevlar blankets are a cost-effective and quick solution to provide bullet resistance and obscuring line-of-sight.

Conclusion

Power substations are increasingly being targeted and disabled with gunfire, resulting in power outages and millions in damages, and lost productivity. The operators of power substations have a responsibility to harden them from gunfire attacks. 

However, the challenges are significant. Power system operators should focus on deterring attacks and making a gunfire attack more time-consuming and difficult for an attacker.TotalShield can assist power system operators with bullet-resistant enclosures and shields to provide strategic hardening to the power substation’s most critical, sensitive, and hard-to-repair elements. Please contact us for more information.

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