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How You Can Outsmart the Burglars

Lessons and experiences from a multi-site security system project

The DVR mounting system. Broadcast facility break-ins are an ongoing concern for station owners and technical staff. Of course, copper theft is common; and AM stations, with miles of wire and strap lying around, are the most vulnerable to that. But regardless of where you work, a good security system will not only protect your investments but help keep you on the air while maintaining a safe work environment.


Here’s how my employer and I handled one such situation when I was working at the Victory TV Network in 2013.

First, some background: Our microwave system delivers studio signal and Internet connectivity to the transmitter site in another city about 100 miles away. Four microwave relay stations are used for this link. Each site — with its own tower, microwave building and separate standby generator room — is enclosed with a chain-link fence. A phone system works as an alarm system; it activates when the main door of a microwave room is opened. The fences and gates at these sites had no alarms at first.

These remote sites were burglarized repeatedly. Thieves took the 3/0 copper grounding wires and they stole the laptop inside the microwave room. In one instance, they even destroyed the phone-alarm system.

Outdoor speaker system. Microwave Site 3 was burglarized most frequently. It’s in the middle of farmlands, about a mile south from a main highway. The entrance to the site is an access road for farmers who cultivate the back area.

Because of the break-ins there, we added another metal gate at the road entrance of the site. Farmers would not be able to access the road anymore — we expected them to go around — but just a week later we discovered that the metal gate had been pulled down with a truck. We suspected farmers did it but had no proof.

We installed four trail cameras to check the surroundings. “Trail cams” are cheap and easy to install. We mounted each camera inside an old metal circuit breaker box to disguise it.

The trail-cam pictures showed us that the area outside this fence was active, especially during summer. We saw trucks, cars, deer and other animals going in and out of the area; but for 11 months, nobody attempted to pass inside the fence. (One night we did see unusual activity. Our pictures revealed a group of men with cars and trucks; these were followed the next morning by an image of a totally burned car being hauled out by a flatbed truck and a police car following behind.)

Sometime during the winter, this site was burglarized again. This time the thieves took not only the copper wires but all four of the trail cams. They also attempted to steal the 240 V wires in the generator room. For some reason they did not finish that job, probably because they’d discovered that the wires were made of aluminum.

An IP phone box. The damage was not extensive, and we were back on-air in less than two hours; but this was the proverbial last straw.

Our management decided it was time for a major security upgrade — not just cheap solutions, but a type of layered security system.

We decided to strengthen the weak points of the fence and to install some kind of surveillance system. I also recommended a commercial security system, though management nixed that due to the additional monthly expense.

Based on my experience, here are some methods that may work for your sites and your budget.


Digital video recorder security systems are used widely. Because we have Internet access at each site, we can view our security cameras in real time.

The ability to recognize a person’s face is important but may require a more costly high-definition camera. Of course, creating a clear picture will require proper lighting, angle, distance and so on. One HD digital security camera costs around $1,000, while an analog DVR-camera security system with four cameras costs $300 to $500. We opted for an analog system.

A few things I learned:

• Choose the best camera available for your budget. There are plenty of cheap brands, but they might not last through next winter. Read specs carefully and don’t buy anything without a customer review. Choose cameras intended for the outdoors that can withstand extreme temperatures, wind, snow and rain. Secure the cable connection with an all-weather cover.

• Placement is crucial. I positioned one to view the area from the top, another looking at the main gate, one pointing at the main door and another looking at the ground wires. If at all possible, secure the camera such that it cannot be stolen easily. Install “Under Video Surveillance” signs around the fence.

• Infrared LEDs illuminate at nighttime and can be spotted, so I turned them off and used outdoor lights instead.

• Buy DVRs with more channels than you need at present. Buy additional cameras later as needed.

A spec sheet from ABUS includes cutting force data.

• Mount the DVR inside a metal box and place it up high so that it cannot be accessed easily.

• The DVR system is equipped with audio input, so I bought a condenser mic and made a very high gain preamp for better sensitivity. I mounted the mic just above the door outside the microwave room. The mic can sense cars passing on the main road 150 feet away. Any car close to the fence will be picked up.

• Wired cameras are better than wireless. Some users report interference problems with the latter.

• Ensure that the online viewing system works for every person who will use it, especially management.


There are many motion sensors sold in stores and online; prices vary from a few dollars to thousands. The majority, however, are designed for indoor use.

Outdoor sensors are subjected to more unstable environments and may be more susceptible to false triggers. Winds, insects, leaves and many other factors can trip a motion sensor. Most sensors use passive infrared to detect movement, though some vendors resorted to dual sensing technology to reduce false alarms. These use infrared and microwave Doppler radar. The Doppler frequency is at 10 GHz.

When buying motion sensors, make sure the model and brand have been well tested in the field. Your sensor should trigger only for human-sized objects — not dogs, cats, insects or other small animals.

RF immunity is also important, given the broadcast environment in which this sensor will be used. Immunity typically is specified in a product’s technical description.

The next question is where to place the motion sensor. In our project we used three: one on the main gate, one on the back and another on the door of the microwave room. However, we knew farmers would be driving by the fence and that their vehicles might trigger a sensor. Also, a person might approach the fence without intention to steal or break in; this, too, would trigger a false alarm.

Our solution was a circuit that senses three consecutive triggers from any one of the sensors, or an accumulation of three triggers from two or three sensors. If the circuit sees three triggers within one minute (an adjustable setting), an alarm is sent to the Master Control office. If there are fewer than three, the circuit will reset after one minute.

Note that direct sunlight can increase false alarms for an outdoor motion sensor.


A reinforced security gate, complete with razor wires on the surrounding fence. Besides the landline phone, there were IT (VoIP) telephones as well at each site. The IT phone is connected to the router via an Ethernet cable. A “voice call” feature lets a person call the phone at the microwave site and his voice could be heard from the speaker, even if the handset was not lifted, much like the pager function used in shopping centers.

I made a small preamp circuit and connected it to the telephone speaker. The preamp was connected to an amplifier with a loudspeaker mounted outside. In the event of an alarm, or if the operator on duty saw someone on the camera trying to force himself into the fenced area, the operator could talk to the would-be intruders and hopefully scare them away. A siren circuit could also be used for the input of the preamp.


Believe it or not, most padlocks sold by the local hardware store, Home Depot or Lowe’s can be cut easily with a $27 bolt cutter. Some can be picked easily, too; it’s all over YouTube.

Exposed phone wires are a security risk. Other padlocks are designed to prevent the use of a bolt cutter; one example is the ABUS monoblock 92.

We needed a matching chain as well. Security chains are rated based on the force needed to cut them.

Choose a chain with the highest cutting force, other things being equal. The ABUS square chain fits snugly with the ABUS lock; the company’s smallest chain has a cutting force of 4 tons.

Another option for padlocks is the siren lock, which sounds off when touched. It will turn off after a few minutes. This type of lock is inexpensive and will surely fit your budget.

As a last layer of door security, I installed a secret “lock” that does not look like a padlock; it doesn’t even have a key. The only way to defeat my “lock” is to destroy the door. You, as the station engineer, can come up with your own secret lock; perhaps it is a mechanical latch that prevents the door from opening even when the padlocks are broken, or a hidden padlock separate from the main lock, one that only you know about.

Also remember that a person working alone and trying to cut a heavy chain might use the ground to help exert force on the cutters. So a chain higher on your gate will be harder to cut than one near the ground.

Another means to protect a padlock from a bolt cutter is a lock box. These can be bought online or custom made.


A chain-link fence is easy to cut with a bolt cutter; for added protection we installed cross braces on the gate using 1-inch pipes and plenty of U-bolts. We added razor wire around the fence. You have to decide how much to use. The wire will not prevent would-be burglars from entering your property but should delay entry. Additional braces or brackets can be added to the fence for strength.

An electric fence is another option. I like the visual “shock and awe” effect of electric wires surrounding the site.

Electric fences are common at cattle farms; a system can be bought from the local hardware store. A typical installation consists of PVC pipes and 17-gauge galvanized wires spaced a foot apart. The system is installed inside the existing fence and connected to a 5 kV high-voltage source called the “energizer,” powered from the outlet or a 12 V battery. The output voltage is a narrow pulse and is non-lethal. The system provides relay output to control an external device or alarm in case the wires are cut.

In essence, the wires work as both sensor and shield. No need for outdoor motion sensors anymore. “Danger” warning signs and pictures will add scare factor. However, lawsuits will be a potential downside in the eyes of cautious management.


Replacing copper ground wires with aluminum ones would also make the facility less attractive to thieves.

We had heard that copper thieves often victimize the utility substation; we went to the local electric utility company and found out that this was true. The utility engineer then decided to replace the copper wires with aluminum. Incidentally, the utility had extra spools of aluminum wires that they would give away for free. These are bigger in diameter than the copper wires we had, but we used them to replace the ground wires at the microwave sites. We used splice connectors (similar to AlumiConn) and antioxidant compound when connecting the structures to the ground rod wires.

Thieves cut away valuable copper ground wires, leaving nothing behind. If you choose aluminum, do not forget to check the tightness of the connections regularly; aluminum expands and contracts differently than copper. Also, get the right diameter of aluminum wire. For the same ampacity, aluminum wires must have a diameter 25 percent bigger compared to copper. Also remember that aluminum corrodes differently than copper.


A well-lit site will help deter break-ins. In addition to the electric pole light, we added security lights, with a focus on the back, where thieves previously had used the buildings as cover while cutting the fence. By clearing the surrounding area of overgrown trees and bushes, we eliminated places for thieves to hide.

The wire from the utility company phone box typically is exposed. This line should be protected because some thieves are aware that the alarm employs the phone lines. Use metal conduits to protect the wires.

Securing remote sites is critical, and it pays to be a step ahead of the burglars. Determine the weaknesses of your site and make a plan to strengthen them. Begin with practical and inexpensive solutions, such as new doors, fences, gates and locks.

John Marcon, CBRE, CBTE, has worked in AM, FM, shortwave and television in various capacities over 24 years. He also was a vocational electronics teacher.

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