Millions of dollars are lost to construction equipment and metal theft annually. The security challenge is difficult but technology now plays a larger role.




The skip steer caught Coba Palmer’s eye. One of two construction trucks sitting in a Northside Chicago lot, the $48,000 piece of equipment was Palmer’s prey. Many such trucks – left unguarded on sites throughout the U.S. – have universal ignition keys. No wonder construction site managers often dangle expensive gear high above the ground from high rise cranes.

As luck wouldn’t have it for Palmer, Chicago police officers arrived as the thief was attempting to start up the unit.

Such theft has been all too common on construction sites over the years. More recently, with the slowing American economy, juxtaposition with the rise in the value of resold metals, especially aluminum and copper, there has been escalating theft on nonresidential and home builder sites as well as at utilities and even highways.





Jim Akers, inspector for the Tri-County Auto Task Force (Will County), sees value in devices that combine a global positioning system (GPS) locator and anti-theft alarm.




So it’s not surprising that construction companies and home builders now seek a diversity of security technologies to protect their assets.

One approach is use of security video combined with wireless communications to an off-site monitoring facility.

Matt Scherer, a frequent Security Magazine writer, recently visited New Orleans, a city that mixes new construction with a growing crime problem.

Scherer observed that two years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana, the city of New Orleans is still slowly rebuild itself.

Williams Scotsman, the general contractor for the construction project, received help from ASAP Security Services of Houston with the low-voltage aspect of the project. Originally hired to provide the local school district with fire alarms, intercom systems and IT/data infrastructure, Mike Monsive of ASAP also saw a need for his CAM-V mobile surveillance system. “My customers were losing copper and their heavy equipment to thieves,” he said. “In fact, we were on a job putting in a fire alarm and an intercom system and thieves took everything we installed.”

The security technology, which takes seconds to install, works within a wireless setting so that end-users can connect camera signals to a monitoring station or directly to a construction manager’s laptop.

Richard Root, Williams Scotsman’s project manager for the completion of the nine schools, said he appreciated the security presence of the mobile security device.

In New Orleans, businesses were losing copper and their heavy equipment to thieves. A wireless, portable camera system from ASAP Security Systems just takes only 30 seconds to have the device running.


Root and his Williams Scotsman operational staff quickly found the wireless/remote monitored video design could help them manage the delivery of goods and materials to each job site. “It was phenomenal for the fact that I didn’t have to leave the office,” said the Williams Scotsman executive. “I could look up from my desk and see what the guys were up to and see the progress of each project at any point. From their laptop computers, construction managers can monitor their construction site to see if their workers are wearing their safety helmets or following their work site safety programs,” he said.

In Will County, Ill., cutting edge security technology emphasizes recovery as much as prevention.

Earlier last year, the County’s Sheriff’s Department along with the Tri-County Auto Task Force combined resources to address job site theft. The task force implemented three MOBILELOCK units (DeWalt) to identify areas of frequent job site theft, capture the thieves and recover the stolen assets. Within two months of using the devices, the task force caught nine thieves and recovered approximately $250,000 in stolen heavy construction equipment.

To help professional contractors better protect mobile assets on job sites, the devices combine a global positioning system (GPS) locator and anti-theft alarm that feature state-of-the-art locating capabilities.

Through computer tracking, the stand-alone, portable, wireless locating and alarm system easily mounts to equipment using integrated heavy-duty magnets or fastens into place using screws. There are four sensors built into the unit, tamper sensor, door contact sensor, vibration sensor and temperature sensor.


The four sensors built into the unit, tamper sensor, door contact sensor, vibration sensor and temperature sensor, can be programmed individually through a phone or the Web site to monitor the mobile asset. If an intruder tries to enter a secured area, disturb a piece of protected equipment or remove the unit from the asset, the alarm activates and a signal is sent over the cellular network. If the protected asset is disturbed, the alarm is triggered and the user receives a phone call, text message or e-mail notifying them that there has been a security breach.

Jim Akers, inspector for the Tri-County Auto Task Force, boasts of more than one-half million dollars in recovered equipment. “There is dual protection – intrusion alerting and stolen equipment tracking and locating.”

In Portland, Ore., another construction company combined day/night cameras with local digital video recorders in the work trailer.

Hoffman Construction Company, a key player in the Pacific Northwest region, has an active theft prevention program. But they, too, have been burglarized frequently in the past and the problem showed no signs of improving. “Most of it is small stuff,” said Brian Clarke, safety director at Hoffman Construction. “While the immediate costs of these thefts didn’t come out of our pocket, we had to do something about it. It was the right thing to do for our subcontractors.”

While the Portland, Ore., Hoffman Construction's design depends on a DVR located in the construction trailer office with a monitor, Brian Clarke is often on the road, so he can view any camera using Internet-based remote viewing software.


Clarke’s big concern was a collection of high-rises in the riverfront development in Portland. “Projects were being looted. Onsite security guards were less than effective, and people were jumping the fences.” Taking advice from a construction industry group focusing on security, Clarke decided upon security video. But where do you install such a video system on an excavated site? He picked Larry Romaine of Performance Systems in Portland. Romaine said, “We looked at several solutions, but based upon cost of equipment, ease of use and reliability, we felt Dedicated Micros could offer what we needed.”

The project called for five fixed, color day/night cameras and a digital video recorder. Romaine chose 9-22mm vandal resistant cameras, monitored by an Eco9 DVR with 160 GB of internal storage in the job site trailer office. “We hung two cameras in the middle of the yard on a construction yard pole,” Romaine said. “We picked up the local power from the light pole to run the wireless transmitter for the camera heaters and blowers. We then mounted a weatherproof enclosure on the pole in which we mounted the weather resistant transformer and the wireless transmitters.”

The short-range wireless transmitters send the digital images to the wireless receiver, which is hardwired to the DVR headend. However, this can prove to be a challenge, explained Romaine. “Wireless transmitters tend to be somewhat unreliable in the lower Gigahertz (2.4 GHz) ranges when a line of site between the transmitters and receivers is sometimes not possible, particularly when the construction crane interrupts the signal path.”

Three more cameras were affixed to various sides of the jobsite trailer to cover the rest of the property. Romaine hardwired the cameras to the DVR using Siamese cable – RG-59 with an 18-guage, two conductor under the same sheath – to obtain both power and video signals on the same cable.


The DVR is in the construction trailer office with a monitor, but since Clarke is often on the road, he can view any camera using remote viewing software.

Once the system was installed, “we called everyone onsite,” Clarke said, “and told them that we didn’t know where the losses were coming from, internal or external. I said that I didn’t care who was doing the stealing, but it stops now. It wasn’t a conversation. It was a statement. We invited anyone who wanted to see it to come in and see the supervisor’s office and see the video screens.”

Since that day, Hoffman Construction has had zero losses on that site. “Where budget allows and it’s feasible, we’re installing cameras on all the other sites,” Clarke said, in addition to other crime prevention strategies, including, fencing, signage and engaging employees and neighbors.

As with many technological advances, there is always a learning curve. The first night that the security video system was implemented on the construction site, most of the memory on the DVR was used. This was due to the fact that it rained and every time the raindrops hit the puddle, the cameras were so sensitive that it picked up the ripples in the puddle and set off the motion sensors, Clarke said. Once they adjusted the motion sensors, the DVR’s memory was more than sufficient for the job.


The solution has brought several bonus applications as well. There was one instance in which a labor issue arose. To keep tabs on any inappropriate behavior that might occur, the company installed an additional camera with a long lens to monitor the situation. “There was only one instance,” Clarke said, “and we used the recorded images to bring it to the group’s attention that this was unacceptable behavior. It didn’t happen again. It was a real advantage to not only use the product to solve the theft issues, but to be able to solve an additional issue. It was absolutely incredible, but it worked.”

Another solution from VideoIQ aims at home builders, who want to reduce on site theft but also can leverage the security gear for use by the home buyer.

The technology watches home sites under construction during off-hours through advanced processing of video from surveillance cameras. It automatically detects people and vehicles as they approach the house, marking and tracking them with colored box identification within the images. The intelligent software recognizes people and vehicles automatically, but ignores animals, leaves blowing in the wind and other unimportant changes.

Video verification includes sending a message along with a short video clip to a remote monitoring station and/or the builder. Monitoring personnel intervene via audio. Using an audio system with a loudspeaker on the premises of the construction site, remotely located guards immediately intervene and address the intruder, warning him to leave the property.

The builder can view his or her site anytime using the Internet or a cell phone.

SIDEBAR: Prevent Equipment Thefts

Mark It! Mark equipment, metal pipe and moveable property.

Use an identification system approved by law enforcement. Use the driver’s license number of the principle of the firm or the OAN number (owner applied number), a ten-digit code number assigned by a law enforcement agency, if available.

For more OAN information, log onto

Put the number in two spots: hidden and obvious. For machinery with cabs, paint the last six digits of the Product Identification Number (PIN) on the roof.

Record It!

Re-key your equipment. Most construction equipment is commonly keyed.

Don’t leave equipment in remote areas. Disable and park camp-wagon style, heel to toe, in a circle. Inventory equipment frequently and park it so it is obvious if something is missing. Paint your equipment a distinctive color and include your name or logo. Install anti-theft devices: fuel cutoffs, hydraulic bypasses, track locks or alarms. Contact equipment dealers for specific anti-theft devices developed for their products. Challenge strangers on your property or job sites. Show them you are on the alert.

SIDEBAR: Construction at a Glance

Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate in Millions of Dollars

Total 1,158,279

Private 863,151

Residential 503,722

Nonresidential 359,428

Public 295,128

State & local 274,835

Federal 20,293

Nonresidential and residential construction, one of the biggest and most important U.S. economic sectors, continues to shrink, making theft of equipment and metals on sites more threatening to profit margins.

SIDEBAR: Theft Deductible Waiver in National Database

Just like expensive paintings, there is a national registry of construction equipment and some firms are offering insurance waivers if the database is used.

For example, RLI Marine has an agreement with National Equipment Register (NER) to help RLI clients reduce the expense associated with construction equipment theft. RLI contractors’ equipment policyholders may have policy deductibles of up to $10,000 waived if their equipment is registered on the NER HELPtech database, and is then stolen and not recovered. NER’s secure and confidential online registration of contractors’ equipment, including descriptions of construction equipment and serial numbers, is stored in a national database for the use of law enforcement officials. In addition, registrants are given a warning decal to display on each piece of equipment to deter thieves.

When constructing pipelines, buried fiberoptics plays a significant security role.

SIDEBAR: What about Utility Construction?

For homeland security and utility infrastructure security, buried technology may be better than security video. For example, Optellios’ advanced intrusion detection systems, specially designed to promote physical security of pipelines and other buried infrastructures, use a fiberoptic sensor cable buried along a pipeline to detect and locate unauthorized excavations in the pipeline’s right-of-way. A single system can protect up to 60 miles of pipeline. By providing an early warning and precise location of an incident, FiberPatrol systems can help responders avert costly damages.