March 24, 2005

New tools for fighting jobsite theft

  • Contractors are getting more protection options, from wireless security systems to camera trailers.
    Special to the Journal

    Photos courtesy DeWalt
    Coated steel cables with a built-in sensor are used to secure heavy equipment. Tampering with the cables signals a wireless controller to call the police.

    Here today, gone tomorrow. That's the problem with unsecured jobsites, where tools, materials and even equipment disappear at the most inopportune times.

    Jobsite security continues to be a major challenge for contractors, costing an estimated $1 billion a year in theft losses. But there are two new defense systems on the market that are expected to greatly increase site security.

    Maryland-based toolmaker DeWalt has introduced its wireless SiteLock security system with remote sensors and ConstructionCam of Indiana is into full promotion of its newly patented camera trailer.

    The growing problem of construction site crime is detailed in an October study by DeWalt. Jobsite interviews with 200 commercial and residential contractors, and an independent poll of 1,500 construction project users and buyers, found that 97 percent of them were concerned about jobsite security.

    Tool theft, material theft and truck and van protection were the top three types of jobsite concerns noted, with 60 percent agreeing that tool theft is the top concern and has the greatest economic impact. The $1 billion loss figure refers only to stolen items reported to insurance companies and doesn't include unreported thefts.

    In residential construction alone, the National Association of Home Builders estimated losses of $1 billion to $2 billion annually from the theft of materials and appliances. The National Equipment Register estimates annual thefts of heavy equipment, such as bulldozers and backhoes, at $300 million to $1 billion — with only 10 percent recovered.

    Work site theft results in lost items that need to be replaced, lost time when crews can't go to work and decreased personal productivity, the study found. More than half of those interviewed have had equipment stolen in the past 12 months, 75 percent of the thefts were at night or on weekends and 77 percent of the jobsites have experienced theft up to five times each year for the past three years.

    The controller is the heart of DeWalt's wireless sensor system for protecting jobsites. It uses a cell phone to call authorities if equipment is disturbed.

    Shawn Rhode, chief operating officer for Bellevue general contractor Rafn Co., said job site security is a big problem for his firm.

    "The problem seems to get worse outside the main city core, in the more rural areas. A Bellevue church we're building has had material stolen because it's isolated, with no immediate neighbors," Rhode said. "We've set up lights with motion detectors on sites and we're starting to use Web cams. It also helps to discourage people when they see a surveillance camera on a post in a weatherproof box."

    Bill Pugh, marketing manager for DeWalt's business security group, said that despite contractors' problems with theft and vandalism, "we found that less than 15 percent of the jobsites we surveyed had identified an effective alarm system or other solution."

    Going wireless

    DeWalt's SiteLock security system has a portable base unit and five wireless sensors that can be installed, moved or customized by local workers for different jobsites. The base unit — equipped with a siren, strobe, motion sensor and vibration sensor — is usually located inside a jobsite trailer, with remote sensors programmed on the site to detect movements, tampering or attempted thefts.

    Pugh said one of the system's biggest benefits is that it can secure work sites up to 2,000 feet from the base unit by magnetically attaching motion and vibration sensors to locked toolboxes or construction equipment.

    DeWalt's system uses cell phones to notify a monitoring center, contractors or police if thefts or break-ins are detected. As many as 48 individual sensors can be used, with up to six keychain remotes programmed to activate the system.

    The first DeWalt systems in the Puget Sound area arrived in early March at Acme Tool in Seattle and Fife. DeWalt's suggested price for the equipment, with one keychain remote, is about $1,000, with wireless sensors for the system selling at $99 to $199 per unit. DeWalt's security monitoring service for the system costs about $40 per month.

    "Our display has gotten a lot of attention but we've only had it a week now so the guys I've shown it to are still checking with their bosses," said Jordan Hanks, a sales agent with Acme in Seattle. "It's like the OnStar system used in cars, with a monitoring service that tells you when someone has entered your work site or tampered with things on the site."

    Hanks said he's amazed at how aggressive jobsite criminals can be, even bringing cutting torches with them. "Often it's not the regular employees but a day laborer or someone delivering cement or steel who looks for which of the 50 gang boxes have the most tools or what equipment is on the site," he said. SiteLock signs are also a deterrent, since "crooks are looking for an easy hit," he added.

    Portable security

    Near Chicago, Mark Carroll has combined his 19 years of construction site and electronics experience to create the camera-trailer, about the size of a small covered trailer for moving household goods. The trailer's equipment operates stationary and remote-control cameras, still-photo time-lapse cameras and other devices that allow sites to be monitoring by security agencies or the contractor using Voice over Internet Protocol on the Web.

    "Any break-in or theft activity is reported and recorded with cameras that can be remotely turned, tilted and panned," Carroll said. "Site cams are everywhere on jobsites but we've patented a security equipment trailer that not only operates the whole system but also provides easy mobility from one job site to another."

    Carroll's business,, offers a trailer equipped with solar panels and a wind generator for operating where no power is available. Prominent camera placements let thieves know they're being photographed. Sites are also protected with laser beams and motion sensors that trigger camera activity. Even tampering with the trailer or its equipment sends a wireless alarm. The unit rents for $600 per month, including basic services.

    "We can also provide a customized Web site for companies, customized job site evaluations for each security system and — afterward — we can provide time-lapse photos or video of the entire project, something contractors can use for marketing or as gifts to their clients," he said.

    Carroll is getting more than a dozen calls a week about his system from contractors who report break-ins at their site trailers, stolen Bobcats, and tool and material theft.

    "Insurance will pay for stolen equipment once in a year but the next big items stolen come out of the contractor's pocket. Losing tools and equipment means work stoppage and frustration, too," he said.


    Terry Stephens is a freelance writer based in Arlington. He can be reached by e-mail at

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