'It's the world we live in.' Physical security at co-op headquarters.

More than the name will change when Midwest Energy Cooperative moves into its new headquarters building in Cassopolis, Mich., later this year. For one thing, there will be sleek, functional areas for billing, engineering and operations, dispatch, member service, and all the other functions found in an electric co-op’s head office.

The new home of what will be known as Midwest Energy & Communications will also finally have the space it needs for a burgeoning high-speed internet service. What’s more, the 130,000-square-foot facility will allow the co-op to launch a brand new “co-location server business,” offering safe, secure computer backup for businesses and government agencies.

But some things will be changing in a more fundamental way, starting with how employees, members, and the general public get in and around the building and the surrounding yard.

A 7-foot wrought-iron fence decorates—and secures— the front of the building. Seven feet of cyclone fencing encloses the rest of the co-op’s 20-acre “secured area.” Three gates in the fence open for employees with identification badges they swipe through a card reader, with an intercom system allowing approved access for vendors and contractors.

Security cameras keep a 24-hour watch on all gates, doors, and sensitive areas throughout the building and grounds.

Members and guests can enter the building’s front door, but they’ll need to get “buzzed in” to make it past the lobby. All inside doors are “swipe-access only,” requiring the new employee badges.

There’s a panic button on the reception desk to summon managers and police if there’s trouble in the lobby, but after careful consideration and a thorough debate, the co-op drew the line at shielding the desk behind heavy glass.

“We do not have bullet-resistant glass in the lobby,” says Roger Bowser, manager of energy programs and services and the co-op’s point person on the headquarters building project. “It was definitely a discussion we had. But we felt that was probably not the message we wanted to send, so we decided against it.”

Further Enhancements

Like Midwest Energy, co-ops across the country are wrestling with similar questions, whether they’re building new headquarters offices or upgrading existing facilities. Physical security is among the top concerns for boards and management when planning a new headquarters, according to a consulting and contracting firm that specializes in co-op facilities.

“We always ask clients what their major goals are for a new project, and security has always been one of those major goals,” says Tim Masa, president of St. Louis-based Cooperative Building Solutions. That’s been the case since the company was founded in 2009, he adds, but “what we’re seeing now is that some are starting to take measures that are maybe a little bit further enhanced than what they used to be.”

Further enhancements, Masa says, start with the basics: 7 feet of galvanized chain link fencing topped by three strands of barbed wire to make an 8-foot perimeter barrier around the materials yard, truck bays, and employee parking lots. Access through the vehicle gates should be controlled with card-reader systems, he says, and the area should be well-lit and monitored by cameras.

“And then when you come into the office, have a secured lobby to stop a member or vendor from just walking in and getting into the whole building,” Masa says. His company recommends public restrooms off the lobby and small meeting areas where co-op employees can meet their visitors outside the secure confines of the rest of the building.

Drop boxes should channel members’ bill payments directly to the “money room,” he adds, so checks and cash aren’t lying around in plain sight on the receptionist’s or cashier’s desk.

Seating that front-line employee behind thick, bullet-resistant glass is a good idea that may be too much of a stretch for some co-ops, Masa continues, but he definitely recommends a nearby panic button “just to lock doors or call 911.” One co-op in Oklahoma even included a dedicated space for police and sheriff’s deputies with its own external door.

Done right, Masa says, measures like these don’t have to drag out construction times or blow the project budget.

“It’s a consideration,” he says. “But the items we’re talking about don’t add to the overall duration when they’re properly planned out. And with a new facility built from the ground up, it’s a considerably lower percentage of the overall cost. Especially when you consider that the co-op is protecting its people, its equipment, and its overall facilities.”

Not to mention guarding the people and systems that provide an essential service to thousands of neighbors and businesses.

'It's Rural America Too'

Top management at Cooperative Building Solutions consists mostly of former electric co-op CEOs, and the company was founded by former co-op CEO Gary Hobson. Masa says those veterans are saddened but not surprised that securing co-op buildings is such a priority for the company’s clients. There’s a sense that the friendly co-op office from the early days needs to be hardened.

“I don’t have data on it, but it’s no more than what you and I are seeing on the nightly news,” Masa says. “And we’ve all seen that it’s no longer just downtown urban settings; it’s rural America too.”

In the southwestern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Midwest Energy serves about 36,000 meters in 11 counties in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio from Cassopolis, a town of about 2,000 people. It’s rural territory, Bowser says, and 80 percent of the accounts are residential.

But board members and management had seen the same nightly newscasts that Masa was talking about, and they knew from firsthand experience that trouble comes even to this quiet co-op service territory.

“We’ve had an incident or two over the years that led us to beef up our security,” Bowser says. Last summer, for instance, an escaped prison inmate jumped the co-op’s fence. That and “some employee theft,” he says sadly, prompted the co-op to boost its closed-circuit surveillance systems.

“It’s reality,” he says. “It’s the world we live in. In the past, they never had the technology to surveil it. But now we do, so shame on us if we don’t use it.”

The co-op also had other pressing needs that led it to build a new headquarters.

“We didn’t build it for security reasons,” Bowser says. “We built it because we have a dozen people working in the basement. We ran out of space.”

But since it was time to build anyway, the board and management agreed to boost security in the new facility. They had three main reasons.

“First and foremost is the safety of our employees from those customers who might be disgruntled and, for that matter, from former employees who might be disgruntled,” he says. “Number two would be our assets. And number three, of course, is protection of the grid, the supply of electricity.”

The membership seems to approve of the co-op’s enhanced headquarters security measures, although Bowser did run into some staff grumbling about having to wear the new identification badges on lanyards or belt clips.

“Most if not all of our swipe pads also had key pads on them” for employees to punch in an unlock code, he says. “We’re going away from the key pads because they’re somewhat of a maintenance issue; they freeze up in the cold weather. Now, people have to wear a photo ID badge, which some people just didn’t want to do. They didn’t want to hang it around their neck or put it on their belt. It was a culture thing.”

But more secure co-op headquarters are a culture thing too.

“Whether we’re rural or we’re in the middle of an urban area, it’s our responsibility to keep our employees safe and keep the lights on,” Bowser says. “And criminals are mobile. They can do harm to anyone, regardless of where you are. I think you need to secure the assets and the employees who have been entrusted to keep the lights on.”