Feature

Taking up tech: Job site security for the 21st century

"Construction thieves operate on the low-hanging fruit principle," said Eddie Martinez, director of safety and risk for Miami-based Munilla Construction Management. "They look for the quickest way to get in and out of the job site without being noticed, and if you leave yourself vulnerable, you’re going to get hit."

Indeed, the construction industry loses up to $1 billion annually in heavy equipment theft alone, according to data collected by the Des Plaines, IL-based National Insurance Crime Bureau. That doesn’t even account for smaller tools stolen from job sites every day, often to be resold on websites like Craigslist at deep discounts to retail. 

According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Building, a U.K.-based international construction industry group, nine in 10 construction professionals say they’re affected regularly by theft, and one in five say theft can occur weekly at their jobsite. 

That's not to say they aren't trying to prevent it. 

Historically, the industry has relied on barbed wire-fenced perimeters, night watchmen and guard dogs to discourage unauthorized access to job sites. With the development of low-cost surveillance cameras, controlled access systems and GPS-enabled tracking devices for equipment, along with the ability to enable and control such devices over wireless and mesh networks, construction pros today are finding theft deterrent to be similarly straightforward — even if it is higher-tech.

Caught on camera

Many construction crews are taking advantage of the ability to track ingress and egress to job sites in real time. Among them is CNY Group, in New York City, which is heading up construction management at the Marriott Edition in Times Square, as well as the Tammany Hall renovation in Union Square and the residences at the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan.

Across those sites, CNY is using a badging system that gives all workers an RFID-enabled, wearable photo ID that they must present in order to gain access to the project. "It's relatively simple technology, but it records the time of entry and exit, and who it was," said CNY president Kenneth Colao. "Having controlled access is one of the primary elements that will improve security because it eliminates the ability for people to casually wander on and off the job site, which also significantly improves safety."

CNY also augments its controlled-entry system with surveillance cameras at all points of entry to a job site and at property line locations where access could be potentially gained through the roof or a window of an adjacent property. Cameras for construction surveillance can typically be backed up to both DVR and to the cloud and can offer high definition and high resolution even in low-light conditions for real-time facial recognition and as providing critical video evidence should a theft occur.

Because it had installed surveillance cameras at site access points, the project trailer and equipment containers, MCM was able to identify a family member of an employee stealing tools. "A lot of theft in the industry is still inside jobs, and simply installing a surveillance system will go a long way toward deterring employees from theft when they know they’re being watched," Martinez said. "In this case, the family member didn’t know we had a camera system, and we were able to catch them in the act."

Sensing movement, projecting strength

Until last year, MCM was losing an average of $150,000 annually in stolen equipment and tools. With 200 pieces of heavy equipment across 16 job sites in Florida, the general and civic contractor last year invested in a job site motion-sensing platform that sends reports to project supervisors' and managers' smartphones when it detects a disturbance. This year, the company forecasts its theft-related losses at just $20,000.

"We’ve gotten very big on security technology as a result," Martinez said. "It requires an investment, but we reap the benefits also, as our losses are seeing a considerable change."

MCM uses a Wi-Fi enabled sensor array from Westerville, OH–based Tattletale Portable Alarm Systems to monitor project trailers, storage containers and all ingress/egress points, sending an alert the moment movement is detected on the jobsite. While the system has offered MCM a plug-and-play solution for jobsite monitoring around the clock, simply having the system visible and known to would-be thieves is the greatest deterrent, according to Martinez.

CNY Group's Colao agrees. "Fortunately, we have not had many incidents," he said, crediting his firm's use of the RFID badging system. "The threat of having surveillance and controlled access in and of itself does a lot to deter activity."

Heavy tech for heavy equipment

When thefts do occur, losses incurred by AEC companies can be expensive, particularly when heavy equipment is involved. According to the most recent data tracked by the NCIB, stolen heavy equipment is recovered only 23% of the time, with sources interviewed for this story reporting greater numbers of thefts occurring on longer holiday weekends and in the winter months, when active job sites are unattended. The NCIB data indicates a higher volume of thefts overall during the summer months, when job sites tend to be most active. Tractors, loaders, mowers and backhoes are stolen most often, with brands including John Deere, Kubota, Bobcat, Caterpillar and Toro perennially favored by thieves.

While RFID-enabled tracking devices can be successful in helping to locate stolen equipment, they require knowledge that the equipment has been lost. For a more proactive solution, MCM has outfitted all of its equipment with LoJack brand cell-band frequency locaters and GPS, and it has geo-fenced its job sites to provide a smartphone alert when any iron is on the move.

"Geo-fencing is nothing new, but it is much more affordable now because the cellular cost has gone down," Martinez said. "Once you geo-fence a piece of heavy equipment, it gets triggered and you know right away it's probably being stolen." Although false alarms do sometimes occur, his team was able to recover an $80,000 backhoe from a theft in process thanks to geo-fencing. "[That] paid off our investment in the equipment and technology for three years," he said.

Protecting networks, protecting people

With security technology and job sites increasingly Wi-Fi and network dependent, the next job site security frontier will likely be cyberspace. Already, construction management firms and technology providers are taking steps to protect the job site from hackers.

"Mesh networks have emerged as a resilient and very secure technology for operating distributed surveillance, heavy equipment and even drones in rugged environments and climates," said Don Gilbreath, vice president of media services at Rajant, a wireless mesh network provider based in Malvern, PA.

Distributed mesh radio networks were developed more than 30 years ago by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and evolved quickly in the post-9/11 era to provide self-reliant, self-launching communications systems. Today, mesh networks are being deployed successfully in mining and agriculture to provide full device connectivity and data transfer in data-sparse areas. "In those applications, the trucks keep rolling, the network stays together, and everyone has everything from email to video to equipment telemetry data," Gilbreath said.

In New York, CNY Group has also taken steps to harden job site network security. In addition to monitoring bandwidth usage in real time to detect improper usage and access, the firm has invested in cybersecurity insurance for its home office as well as all of its job sites. 

Cyber insurance kicks in where commercial general liability policies typically drop off, covering damages wreaked to networks and IT systems by hackers. It also covers third-party liability, including the breach of confidential corporate and personally identifiable information. While costs depend on factors including policy coverage and premiums, cybersecurity policies can help to stem losses from unauthorized access, viruses, malware, hackers and even operator error, and they otherwise act as a rider to commercial liability coverage. 

Whether in cyberspace or in the dirt, effective job site security technology should help construction teams with prevention, detection and recovery, but apprehension should always be left to law enforcement. "If you do see something suspicious at a job site or an alarm gets triggered, don’t go in there yourself — call the police," Martinez said. "At the end of the day, you could easily turn a minor theft into a major accident."

Filed Under: Technology