Sunday, June 15, 2008

Copper Thieves Beware - Part 1

It’s a warm, stormy evening in the middle of Nowhere, Alabama, the clouds are rolling in with the seasonal thunderstorm. Fifty miles from Nowhere, a truck backs up to the gate surrounding a cell tower on a small rise. Trees surround the area, so the chances of someone seeing this little adventure are slim to none. The driver quickly backs up to destroy a section of the fence. He backs further into the fenced area directly to the copper grounding plate partially buried under ground. A few quick, strategic cuts and some heavy lifting into the back of the truck, and they have their loot. This piece should get them at least $100 (maybe more). “No real harm dun… These big cell companies can just replace it any ol’ time…” says the passenger as they drive off before the storm gets there.

Copper Theft. Doesn’t really seem like a big problem, until you recognize all the possible ways it can be illegally (and easily) obtained – not to mention how much it’s worth these days. In 2006 and 2007, a dramatic increase has been noted in copper worth, as well as its theft! So much so, that the US Department of Energy puts the estimated amount of loss at $1 Billion per year.

A little research online shows many stories of differing ways copper is stolen. Yes, grounding plates from cell towers is one of them. What is an apparently low cost loss to the “big cell companies”, turns into multiple thousands of dollars in service, retrofit, and replacement costs. That’s just to replace one of these grounding plates. But another major concern is the potential for a lightning strike and the damage that can be caused without a grounding plate. ALL equipment in the station is now at risk, with a potential loss in the tens of thousands up to $100,000.

So how can this type of copper thievery be proactively battled? Many would say by installing an alarm system on or near the cell tower. Would an alarm system really be of any help, except to notify the company that the theft had occurred? Not really a deterrent though, because the thieves get away with no risk of being caught. What if the company coupled the alarm system with a video system to capture images of the robbery in progress? Take it a bit further now, and attach the alarm output to the video system. Then, take a relay output from the video system to an alarm flashing light, an area light, and speaker. The alarm flashing light alerts the thief the area is in alarm. The area light, turns on (if it’s after dark), and the video system takes a number of pictures from all the cameras. The video system then sends the captured pictures across the network (very low bandwidth requirements) back to a central site. The speaker, of course, is to tell the potential criminals, “pictures have been taken, and uploaded to a central database… law enforcement has been alerted… please leave the premises immediately”.

Of course, this immediately tells the thieves many things. Number one, pictures have already been taken and sent somewhere off site, so it’s no use trying to find a video recorder to destroy evidence. Number two, they will think again before stealing anything from this site. Number three, they will re-consider any future endeavor in the field of copper thievery, at least, from THIS Company’s cell sites.

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