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Theft and vandalism of instrumentation equipment is impacting on safety: Brendan Oram

It’s a sad state of affairs when the data loggers and other safety critical instrumentation used to remotely monitor slope stability for the Coal Authority in South Wales were stolen only days after installation earlier this year.

In value terms, the theft in Wales was not as much as the 21 robotic total stations (RTS) stolen during our time on a major project in London. However, the theft at the Cwmtillery site was felt much more keenly in other ways and the incident prompts me to consider what further action we could be taking. 

The two examples happened in very different environments, but the vulnerability of the installed monitoring systems is clear, and is something that impacts both clients and monitoring providers alike.

Aside from the costs of both new equipment and re-installation, sites can be without monitoring for several weeks while replacements are sourced. For a site like the coal mine, this doesn’t present an immediate risk because as data is used build up knowledge of the asset over a number of months or even years. 

On a construction project like Crossrail the impact of the losses could be felt much more heavily.  The data is often being used to provide vital information to third party stakeholders and insurers, often with minimal backup arrangements in place. Without the monitoring data, the asset owner/operator cannot be 100% sure that the construction activity is not going to cause a safety risk and may have to cease work until the monitoring can be re-established. Aside from the potential programme delays, many contractors will look to claim standing.  

In other asset management environments, for example rail, where monitoring data is increasingly being relied upon to assist with operational decisions, line speed restrictions or cancellations of service could result from the absence of data. Fines levied by regulators are hard to swallow when all the necessary steps have been taken but instrumentation has been vandalised or stolen.  

Where you have construction sites with security it is generally clear who is responsible for breaches and thefts but when looking at an asset such as a harbour wall, coal mine, railway cutting or bridge it becomes a more complex question. Geotechnical monitoring companies supplying remote monitoring do not have a permanent presence on site, and therefore cannot control the day to day conditions.

British Transport Police stepped in when theft of high value items such as RTS increased enormously between 2012 and 2014, which was indicative of organised crime, which has pr4evented continued escalation. Equipment manufacturers’ global service centres were able to flag up stolen serial numbers when an annual re-calibration was requested.

These actions have reduced the problem but, as remote monitoring grows, the potential for being affected by theft or vandalism does to.

We have started to consider the theft risk as part of our monitoring design plan process and recommend measures such as bespoke camouflage, specialist bolts, hardened steel casings, pin codes, CCTV and even tracking devices which trigger an alarm if a geo-fence is breached. 

But is that all we can do as an industry?  Should we be looking to tackle this problem on a wider basis given the multi-layered impact it can have? Or is it simply a matter of taking it on the chin and paying higher insurance premiums?   

I think it’s time to look again at risk assessment and invest in ways to secure this safety-critical equipment. Undoubtedly the supply chain can do more but this can only take place with the wider industry support resulting from consultation and earlier engagement in the design process.

Brendon Oram is head of technical services with ITM Monitoring

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