Threats to Power Grid Challenge Industry to Secure Alarm Communications

How power grid issues impact the security alarm industry.

WASHINGTON – Among the dangers that could bring down the nation’s power grid system, some can seem farfetched. Electromagnetic pulses generated by an enemy’s high-altitude nuclear blast could, in theory, cripple modern life across wide swaths of the homeland. Federal regulators are working on new rules that are supposed to protect the electric grid from solar storms.

Then there are the very real and all-too-common homegrown threats to the power grid. For example, Gannett and USA Today reporters analyzed federal energy records and found that a cyber or physical attack takes place so often – about once every four days – that government officials and grid experts are growing increasingly concerned that it’s just a matter of time before an attack results in cascading outages. The March analysis by USA Today and more than 10 Gannett newspapers and TV stations drew from “thousands of pages of government records, federal energy data and a survey of more than 50 electric utilities.”

For the alarm industry, the constant danger of power outages has led to continued efforts to buttress central station operations by enforcing backup power and redundancy standards and related guidelines. While these initiatives have for years resulted in demonstrable successes in receiving and processing alarm signals in times of calamity, today’s operational hazards go far beyond loss of power to a facility.

“The problem with power outages is sustaining communications. Remember Hurricane Sandy? The devastation would have been far less if there were adequate communications,” says Hank Goldberg, a founder of Secure Global Solutions (SGS). “In fact, a [SW24 Security] central station in New Jersey took over as the command center [for the Moonachie Police Department and city administrators] because it remained operational. Power was not the only issue.”

As modern-day communications infrastructure has grown in density and sophistication, so to have the vulnerabilities of these highly networked systems. To meet the rising challenge of securing network equipment and the critical data that flows back and forth through the systems, industry stakeholders embarked on updating UL 1981 (Central Station Automation Systems) and UL 827 (Central Station Alarm Services). Among a complex litany of amendments, revising the two standards encompassed new cybersecurity measures and unprecedented facility redundancy, including for inbound and outbound communications paths.

Originally, sections of UL 1981 were slated to become effective April 29, 2016; and sections in UL 827 were to become effective Oct. 29, 2016. However, UL recently said those dates would be delayed. The effective date for network security requirements has been reset to Jan. 31, 2018. The entire 3rd edition of UL 1981 has been assigned the future effective date of May 1, 2017.

Goldberg, a member of the UL standards committee that wrote the newly revised UL 827, said not enforcing the revised standards greatly impedes the industry from securing – inbound and outbound – the three fundamental elements of central station communications.

“You have to deal with voice, data and signaling. You need a plan and a methodology of how you deal with each of those,” he cautions. “I will tell you that you can count on one hand the number of central stations that have really sat down to figure that out. It is a huge issue.”

Separately, there are far less complex measures that monitoring stations could be taking to bolster communications internally. Lou Fiore, chairman of the Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC), advocates for the wider adoption UHF radios that would especially enhance a monitoring center’s ability to communicate internally in the event of a widespread power failure or catastrophic event.

Fiore, who has served in multiple leadership roles with the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA), says the radios should be part of an overall disaster recovery plan for most monitoring centers. This is especially true for central stations that do not operate in a large geographic area. But even if a company operates regionally or nationally, its installation and service business still works locally.

“From AICC’s point of view, I would like to see more listed central stations make the small capital expenditure to have 450MHz radio systems – on our own frequency allocation – in place should the cellular networks suffer [catastrophic failure],” he says. “Even if the cell companies have power backup, traditionally call volume during such blackouts soars, making communications difficult. It would be far better for these businesses to maintain separate, reliable voice communications for its own employees.”

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About the Author

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Although Bosch’s name is quite familiar to those in the security industry, his previous experience has been in daily newspaper journalism. Prior to joining SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION in 2006, he spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times, where he performed a wide assortment of editorial responsibilities, including feature and metro department assignments as well as content producing for latimes.com. Bosch is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Mass Communication & Journalism. In 2007, he successfully completed the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s National Training School coursework to become a Certified Level I Alarm Technician.

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