Preventing the theft initially can be as simple as storing items inside or locking them up.
"We need to secure these materials as much as possible because a lot of this material theft is what we call 'targets of opportunity,' " says Savage. "We need to encourage stakeholders to be aware of these materials, their value and to secure them as much as possible."
However, those responsible can't simply attach a bicycle lock to the manhole cover.
A number of companies provide locking devices that secure the inlet and manhole cover. Michigan-based Stabiloc retrofits current covers with a device that locks and unlocks the cover in less than a minute. "It's primarily a security device that is really designed to delay and deter bad guys from gaining access to ... unauthorized manholes," says Tom McClanaghan, CEO of Stabiloc.
Georgia-based LockDown-LockDry designed a system that incorporates a lock (LockDown) with a stainless-steel pan (LockDry) to fit underneath and secure to the rim of the manhole cover. While the system is not primarily designed to deter the cover's theft, it does provide another level of security for underground systems and assets.
However, according to Donnie Burros, LockDown-LockDry vice president and operation manager, "Terrorism isn't the initial issue; while the cost of the wire is not great, its theft could take down a building's electrical system." This, like a missing manhole cover or an unconnected tornado warning system, poses a serious threat to public health and safety.
The idea that commonly comes to mind is to weld the cover shut. This method has been used many times to secure the underground during large events such as Super Bowls, Olympics, political conventions, etc. The downfall to this solution is the weld itself.
According to McClanaghan, "It really doesn't work. You're at the mercy of the quality of the weld and, when it comes down to it, most of the infrastructure at hand is standard gray iron or ductile and neither of these materials are very well suited for welding." He also says that grinding them off can be very costly and causes the infrastructure to erode each time.
Baker suggests officers investigating missing manhole covers keep an eye out while on patrol to ensure citizen safety. "Look for signs that a vehicle may contain stolen manhole covers — vehicles that have more than a couple of covers will sit very low to the ground," he adds.Taking action
In addition to the physical action of locking down and securing metals, there are more steps officers can take in combating material theft.
In Georgia, Baker's department sees more copper theft than iron. The agency's efforts include regular visits to recycling centers from property detectives and log reviews to see who is bringing in scrap metal.
About 20 years ago, ISRI created a successful campaign dubbed "ISRI FaxNet." This network sent a fax to ISRI scrap metal dealers alerting them to the latest material theft. Due to the spike in metal prices and material theft increase, the institute dusted off this network in the summer of 2006 and relaunched it as the "Theft Alert System," utilizing up-to-date technologies: the Internet and e-mail.
This network creates and sends an e-mail not only to the state where the theft occurred, but in all surrounding states, whenever a material theft report is filed and reported to the ISRI system.
"The problem is that it continued to build and grow, to be a more difficult problem for more communities," says Carr. "Now we're getting theft alerts from so many different places that my staff can't keep up with the e-mails."
Additionally, in November 2006, the Macon-Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee brought together scrap processors, energy and utility companies, homeowners associations, law enforcement officers and prosecutors. The committee conducts a formal meeting every six weeks to discuss issues. For example, scrap yards host training sessions with both the victims groups and police to allow them to experience the scrap yard environment, identify what to look for and convey ideas on how parties can help, says Carr. Likewise, law enforcement helps train employees to locate suspicious material.