Monday, October 15, 2012

Video Surveillance at Chemical Facilities

I got an interesting email from John Honovich, the owner of a site focused on all things about video surveillance and one of the few independent commentators on that field. He wrote to tell me that they were preparing to do a blog post about video surveillance at chemical facilities and was interested to know if I had any specific blog posts about the subject that might be of interest to their readers. A quick search of this site showed that just about every post on the topic was based on something that John had written on his site. So maybe it’s time that I addressed this issue on my own.

My Background

I have one small bit of personal practical experience with video surveillance systems dating from about 2004. I was on a plant security committee that was directed to work with a contractor on installing a video surveillance system at the specialty chemical facility where I worked. This was post-911 and pre-CFATS so there was no regulatory guidance or requirements that we had to deal with; management had decided that we needed some sort of video surveillance to enhance the security at our plant.

Looking at Camera Placement

We quickly looked at the budget we had available and it was quickly clear that we would not be able to set up a system to observe the facility perimeter since we could only afford about a half-dozen point-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras. We only had two storage tanks that contained chemicals with potentially significant off-site effects so we decided that those were our possible terrorist targets. We also decided that, since an accidental release was more likely at our facility than a terrorist attack, we wanted camera locations that would be of help in our response to that type of incident.

Our major toxic release hazard was stored in a stand-alone tank farm alongside the rail-spur within the fence line; that spur usually had at least one full railcar of the same high-risk chemical parked next to the tank farm. A nearby pipe-bridge provided an ideal vantage point for observing that tank farm, the rail spur and the rail gate at the backend of the property. We also included appropriate lighting for that area in our plan.

Our other toxic release chemical storage tank was in the middle of a small tank farm with about twenty storage tanks. Try as we might we couldn’t find camera location that would allow us to see more than a small section of the tank. Since the EPA worst-case-scenario for that tank only barely included an off-site release we opted instead for coverage of the off-loading facility where tank wagons of that (and other hazardous chemicals) were off-loaded into the tank farm.

Two operational vehicle-gates were obvious areas where we wanted video surveillance coverage as was the area where we parked tank wagons waiting for unloading or for pick-up of their full loads for transport.


Video surveillance systems are worthless unless someone is watching them. Our five cameras were hard wired into a system with two dedicated monitoring stations with controls for the operation of the cameras. One was at the front gate where we had our single security guard working eight-hours a day. The other was in the plant control room that was operational 24/7.

Finally, software was installed in the plant manager’s computer, the production manager’s computer and in a computer located in another building on the site that was well separated from the production area. All three of these computers were connected to the system via the company intranet and each had a priority override for the controls for the operation of the cameras. These access points were designed more for safety and emergency response purposes than for security.


We never did have a security incident at the plant while I worked there so the system was never really used as part of the counter-terrorism security system. Management did use one of the gate camera feeds in a termination case to document an employee’s unauthorized absence from the plant. One small spill response incident was followed on the video system and it really helped in the after action review for that incident. Other than that it was somewhat useful as a tool for supervisors to keep track of employees and provided some amusement for people in the control room.

Is this a typical installation? I really don’t know, but I suspect that it has many things in common with many smaller chemical facilities. Low budgets and complex facility layouts are going to be two factors that are going to come into play into many of these facilities. Environmental, health, safety and security (EHSS) managers are going to have to leverage their safety considerations and budgets to make these video surveillance installations worthwhile. If they can merge the coverage with areas that are of concern to operations, then the facility may be able to have a video surveillance system that covers a significant amount of the areas of security concern.

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