WILLMAR — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, over four site visits starting in 2018, surveyed the security and resilience of the Willmar Municipal Utilities infrastructure. While specific information about what was found will not be made public due to security concerns, a presentation on the survey was given at Monday's utilities commission meeting.
"It was a great opportunity for us to recognize all the things we are doing right in the changing world of threats, as well as the weaknesses we need to address," said Janell Johnson, compliance and human resources manager for Willmar Municipal Utilities.
The infrastructure survey, which was completed at the utilities' request, looked at the physical and operational security and resilience of the water treatment plants, power plant and substations.
The operational security was graded on five areas — physical security, security management, security force, information sharing and security activity history and background. Those scores were then calculated into a protective measures index. When Homeland Security looked at both the water and electrical department, it found both well below the national average, based on its protective measures index scale.
Johnson said while the low scores might seem concerning, she said some of the survey's criteria would be difficult to meet, like having a dedicated security force keeping an eye on things. If the security force criterion was removed, the utilities scored closer to the national average for water, or even above it for electrical.
Also, if the utilities did some upgrades to its fences, alarms and lights, the protective measures score might improve.
"That would greatly improve our measures and our scores," Johnson said.
When it came to grading the utilities' resilience, or how well it would react to a threat, Willmar Municipal Utilities scored above the national average for water and electrical. It was scored on preparedness, mitigation measures, response capabilities and recovery mechanisms.
"Homeland Security commended the water department on the recovery operations that we do have in place," Johnson said. "Willmar has done its best to be diligent for preparedness and recovery for our electric distribution and transmission facilities."
Facilities and Maintenance Supervisor Kevin Marti said many of the improvements recommended by Homeland Security would not be difficult to implement.
"A lot of things they found are items our own staff could take care of and are fairly easy, I would say, to remedy," Marti said. "A lot of the stuff we are going to end up doing in house."
Willmar Municipal Utilities also continues to keep an eye on its digital security. Every year it completes a penetration test, which looks at internal and external vulnerabilities of the utilities' system.
"If someone was able to get into our system, once they are in, what kind of damage can they do?" said Mike Sangren, information systems coordinator.
The Utilities Commission approved a contract with White Oak Security for $15,592 to complete the test. This is a different vendor than the utilities used in the past.
"I thought it was a good idea to get a new set of eyes on our security situation," Sangren said.
White Oak will provide Willmar Municipal Utilities with a detailed report which will include low, medium and high vulnerabilities the utilities should address.
When it comes to security, whether online or on the ground, it is always better to be proactive instead of reactive.
Johnson said, "The primary focus should always be on prevention of a potential threat instead of a reaction to them," according to Homeland Security.