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Utility fights back after its service territory is hit by a rash of robberies.
Michelle Martychenko, supervisor of electric operations at Ameren Illinois’ Belleville operating center, and Laverne Etheridge, lineman and electric system coordination foreman, review some of the substation areas where copper thieves have struck in the Belleville operating center’s territory.
Following the epidemic of robberies, Ameren Illinois has implemented a variety of different measures and has gotten its linemen on board to help. For example, the linemen now install barbed staples every 6 inches on the ground wire. They drive an additional six to eight staples into the copper wiring, and while it’s easy to drive them in, it’s hard to get them out.
Ameren Illinois has found that this has been an effective deterrent because it’s often more work than the thieves are willing to do to remove the barbed staples, which has three to four barbs on each shank.
The utility has also adhered microdots to the copper wiring. They can apply these microdots by spraying them on or applying them with a Q-tip. These microdots, which are extremely small, become almost invisible when placed on the copper wiring. In fact, someone could put about 100 microdots in the palm of a hand. While they can’t be seen with the naked eye, when light is shown on the microdots, the police can read the serial number, Ameren Illinois and a phone number.
Ameren Illinois also has painted a sample of the copper wiring gray so the wiring doesn’t look like copper. What often happens, however, is that the thieves take the copper wiring off the spools and then chop it into sections before they sell it to the scrap yard.
Another way that the utility is guarding against the robberies is through better fencing. The utility just installed a new fence at its East St. Louis operating center, and the fence is harder to cut than the previous material. Also, the company is investing in improved lighting at its substations and operating centers. The problem, however, is that sometimes these substations are in residential neighborhoods, and it’s not practical or reasonable for Ameren to shine spotlights on the equipment because of light pollution.
Cameras are also ways to spot robberies and deter thefts. In fact, Ameren invested in some portable covert cameras that can be placed on the copper wiring so that when it leaves the yard, the camera films where it is going.
Because the thieves are breaking into not only the substation yards and operating centers but also linemen’s vehicles, Ameren Illinois has ramped up its security for its storm trailers. When the utility is called out to assist on a storm, security guards watch the material trailers overnight while the linemen are asleep. That way, the trailers won’t get stripped of necessary supplies in the middle of the night. If that happens, it can take two to three hours for Ameren Illinois to restock the truck, which affects the restoration time to the customers.
Also, Ameren Illinois keeps the location of its storm trailer under wraps to prevent a robbery. In the past, the company used to set up its storm trailer in a well-lit parking lot, but now it doesn’t disclose the location until the trailer has been set into its location.
Cooperating with the Community
To make a difference, Ameren Illinois is trying special preventive measures on its own as well as partnering with local enforcement agencies and a task force to stop the problem in its tracks. The utility is working to help educate the local scrap yards about what stolen copper typically looks like, and is encouraging the scrap yards to notify the utility immediately if someone tries to sell stolen copper wiring marked with the Ameren Illinois name.
The scrap yards are usually willing to cooperate with the police. For example, one scrap yard had a photo of suspects from a previous theft, and they called the police and told them that they had the suspects there at their business.
Ameren Illinois also took the lead in the creation of a scrap metal task force initiative. The utility is working with local, state and federal agencies to talk about the copper theft issue. The utility meets with law enforcement monthly to talk about problems, brainstorm solutions and find ways to change the laws and push for new legislation.
For example, last August, Illinois approved legislation to prevent scrap metal operators to use cash to buy copper and air-conditioning materials worth more than $100. Instead, they must only accept checks or money orders. In addition, the operators are prohibited from buying metal from government or stolen property, such as from an electric utility.
By partnering with other industry leaders and law enforcement agencies, Ameren Illinois is leading the charge against copper theft. In the meantime, the utility is protecting its linemen in the field and trying to crack down on crime.
Greg Fernandez (email@example.com) is a security investigator for Ameren Corp. He has worked with Ameren Corporate Security since September 2006. Fernandez is responsible for ensuring the personal safety of Ameren employees as well as providing security for Ameren property and facilities.
Michelle Martychenko (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the supervisor of electric construction and has been with Ameren Illinois for seven years. She is responsible for handling Ameren and contractor crews and one-person trucks.
Laverne Etheridge (email@example.com) is the Belleville systems coordination foreman for Ameren Illinois and has been with the company for more than 20 years. In his current role, he is responsible for aligning crews and equipment while addressing operational issues to ensure completion of the weekly schedule.
Editor’s note: To learn more about copper theft prevention at Ameren Illinois, view a video clip at http://youtu.be/aZkbTRknIUk.