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Digital Cameras Protect a Local Utility

MANY PEOPLE WOULD BE LULLED into complacency by the serenity of the rural Midwestern landscape. Not Jimmy Jester. As director of operations and safety for Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Tipton, Missouri, he did not want to wait for an incident to occur before upgrading the utility’s surveillance system to protect co-op employees.

The Co-Mo Electric Cooperative delivers electric power to 26,000 members in a 2,300-square-mile service area. From its head office in Tipton and a district office 35 miles to the south in Laurie, the nonprofit co-op manages and maintains a 3,700-mile electricity distribution network. Its service area stretches from the Missouri River in the north to the Lake of the Ozarks in the south.

Crime has never been an issue for the co-op, but Jester knew that just one violent incident, such as might be caused if a disgruntled customer retaliated against staff, could devastate the company and the community. “We are trying to be proactive,” says Jester.

“Typically, in our business, if we’re going to have an issue, it’s going to be the result of a disconnect for nonpayment. We want to protect our employees from angry customers,” he says.

Jester first assessed the co-op’s needs. The main priority was a digital surveillance system to replace the co-op’s antiquated analog cameras. “Our system was so outdated that emergency calls didn’t even go through 911,” Jester says. “Calls went directly to the local police station.”

The old system also did not allow the two company facilities to be connected. Jester was also looking for a system that would allow staff to monitor and control critical areas of the facility remotely. For example, front gates were left open because there was no way to remotely open the gate for visitors. An access control feature linked to the cameras was a must. Also, Jester wanted a system that included panic buttons that employees could push in case of an emergency.

After reviewing the bids of several providers, Jester chose a March Networks system administered by Alarm 24 of St. Louis, because it had all the features he sought. He purchased the system in early 2006, and it was installed in the spring.

The new system has six digital cameras, with three of the cameras and a DVR at the head office in Tipton and the remaining three with another DVR in the district office in Laurie. The cameras are positioned so that security employees who are stationed in the back offices can keep an eye on the customer service counter and intervene if an employee is subjected to verbal or physical abuse.

A wide-area network connecting the two locations allows staff at the co-op’s Tipton office to monitor video from the district office in Laurie. “The employees in Laurie can also monitor video locally, but they don’t have as many staff, so we are able to help out,” says Jester.

Jester and several colleagues monitor the live video feeds from the front offices of both facilities and take action in the event of any abusive or threatening behavior. For example, if a patron threatens a customer service representative, an in-house security officer will come to the lobby. “Often, we only need the security officer to be present. In most cases, the customer backs down immediately,” Jester says.

Cameras also monitor the front gates and night deposit boxes at both locations. To control access through the gates, employees and repair crews have fobs that contain an access control card that allows them to enter the co-op’s fenced yards.

Visitors must press a button to be allowed in. The button rings through to coop staff, who first check live video from the front gate before remotely unlocking the gate. “We want to make sure we know who’s coming onto the property, mostly for liability purposes,” says Jester.

For added safety, the front counters at both facilities are also equipped with panic buttons linked to strobe lights that alert security staff in the back offices to a potential problem.

“If the light goes on, the first thing we do is check the video,” explains Jester. “If it’s someone who’s upset and waving his arms around, one of us will just go out front and sit down in the reception area. If it’s something more serious, like someone brandishing a weapon, we’ll call the police.”

As part of an agreement with local police, the co-op has provided police officers with fobs that allow them access to the back door. Police can come in unseen and unheard to assess and try to defuse the situation.

The new system played a crucial role in one incident involving the disappearance of a customer service representative’s valuables. The employee placed some items on her desk behind her PC, recalls Jester. A customer came in to discuss her account and must have pocketed them. When the employee noticed that her valuables were gone, she called the customer and made a point of mentioning the co-op’s video surveillance system. Later in the day the customer returned to the office, placed the items on the counter, and immediately walked out.

Jester is pleased with the system’s performance and says that the co-op plans to add more cameras in the future. “We’re very happy with the decision we’ve made. We have never really had any serious incidents, but it’s always best to be prepared.”

(For more information: Bill Anderson, regional sales manager, March Networks; 800/563-5564; e-mail:[email protected])

Teresa Anderson is a senior editor at Security Management magazine.