Looking Down, Locking Up
Many people never notice the numerous manholes on sidewalks and streets, but those manholes serve as entryways to the nation’s extensive underground infrastructure. In a busy metropolitan intersection, one manhole can provide access to the communication, gas and electric lines for tens of thousands of users — not to mention storm and sewer manholes that connect a network of tunnels leading to and from otherwise secured perimeters.
It could also shut down the computers that use them, from utilities to banking to transportation controls.
Manhole security has become such a concern that the Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Protection Center has suggested guidance to develop protective measures including a recommendation to “install special locking devices on manhole covers in and around critical infrastructure facilities.” But doing so would also require that certain manholes be kept accessible to authorized personnel, such as underground technicians. With major metropolitan cities having tens of thousands of manholes, finding a feasible solution is a challenge.
One proposed idea is temporarily locking down certain manholes in small, defined areas for special events or Presidential visits. Alternative manhole security systems are designed with underground technicians in mind — the security products deter intruders, yet can be removed by authorized personnel before performing maintenance services. Once such device is the LockDown-LockDry device from Barton Southern Co., a Conyers, Ga.-based concrete repair contractor.
The device uses a stainless-steel insert and locking hardware that can be placed under the manhole cover and secured to the existing frame.
Originally developed for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the product has been used in government installations, at military bases and at universities across the country. It can be wired with contact switches for remote monitoring and alerting of unauthorized entry.
Unobtrusive fiber-optic security systems, such as the utility cover surveillance (UCS) system from Fiber Instrument Sales (FIS) Inc., Oriskany, N.Y., can also help to ensure the protection of vital underground telecommunications networks.
The detection mechanism, called Cover Cop, does not use electricity, so it cannot spark an explosion in underground utilities where volatile gases may be present.
“Because UCS is based on fiber-optic technology, it overcomes many of the problems associated with other security systems,” says FIS President Frank Giotto. Instead of electricity, UCS transmits laser light through fiber-optic cable, and no electrical power is required anywhere along the cable run. “Not only does this make the system more affordable, but it also provides spark-free monitoring. Unlike electrical wires, fiber-optic cable will not short out or conduct electricity in water dampness. It also eliminates any danger of electric shock to workers,” Giotto says.
The UCS system helps to identify which utility covers should be open for repairs, and which ones should not. The system software displays, via a computer monitor, a user-defined map of the underground network, similar to an aerial view. When someone opens any utility cover within the system, the triggering device causes a measurable loss of light within the fiber-optic cable. This event triggers an alarm and causes a flashing icon to appear on the map, illustrating the location of the open cover.
Securing manholes can have other positive effects as well. Theft and tampering of manhole covers and metal grates are a common problem that could be controlled by protecting the entryways. “Cities and towns are finding it very costly to replace stolen manhole covers and grates,” says Giotto. “Some cities have resorted to welding covers shut, but this delays workers when they have to make underground repairs. [Likewise], open manholes put vehicles and pedestrians at risk.” Giotto says theft of manhole covers has increased dramatically in recent years, as the price of scrap metal has skyrocketed.
“It is startling to realize how much of our nation’s vital communications infrastructure is accessible to anyone via unsecured entranceways,” says Giotto. “Someone who uses a manhole to deliver an explosive device can cost our nation billions of dollars in terms of telecommunications downtime and interruption to electrical service,” he says. “There can also be a tremendous cost in human lives, since these corridors can be used to plant high explosives, or even to hide a nuclear device.”