Photo: Counstruction workers use skid-steer to place large angular boulders along chain-link fence.

Photo by Edward Stoll

Riprap deters camping around substation

In the challenging landscape of the Arizona desert, an innovative adaptation can make an outsized difference. Desert Southwest engineers David Pflanz, Fredrick Oliver and Patrick Buddenbrock did just that in solving a persistent problem at Tucson Substation: unsafe conditions caused by nearby homeless encampments.

Tucson Substation sits north of downtown Tucson, alongside Interstate 10 and near two homeless shelters, La Frontera Magnotto House and Turn Your Life Around Counseling and Recovery Center. These shelters provide a lifeline to homeless and mentally ill adults, offering services ranging from meals and hygiene facilities to housing assessments and screening for additional support. However, some of those seeking services also gathered in areas surrounding the clinics, including the WAPA substation.

“Many of these individuals grapple with substance abuse issues, resulting in discarded drug paraphernalia and needles,” said Oliver. “Some had built encampments along the substation fences, and at times, even made their way inside the substation.”

Photo: photo shows homeless camp littered with rubbish in the foreground and a white and red tent in the background next to a chain-link fence.
Prior to the riprap installation, homeless encampments near the substation
posed a safety and security hazard. Photo by Tatiana Young.

Wire fencing surrounds Tucson Substation, inadvertently creating up to 15-foot corridors between its boundaries and those of neighboring businesses. These corridors offered an ideal location for homeless individuals to gather, hidden from casual observation. Occasionally, people cut the fence to shelter inside the substation.

“This situation raised significant safety and security concerns, both for the individuals themselves and for the integrity of substation,” said Buddenbrock.

Additionally, trash left behind by those seeking shelter found its way onto the substation’s premises, posing not just an eyesore but also a tangible threat during the monsoon season.

“The monsoon season in the region often ushers in strong winds and heavy rainfall, making debris inside the substation a genuine safety concern,” said Pflanz. “This dynamic further heightened the need for immediate action.”

Engineering a cost-effective deterrent

These challenges demanded a comprehensive solution that addressed security, safety and community concerns. Partnering with others within DSW, the engineers generated a design that would deter displaced individuals from breaking into and camping around the substation.

“The initial proposal to install additional fencing as a deterrent was met with skepticism,” said Oliver. “Concerns were raised that determined individuals would find ways to breach the fence or gate, which necessitated an alternative approach.”

Then Pflanz presented an ingenious idea – placing large, jagged rocks, known as “riprap,” around the substation’s perimeter. His reasoning was, as he put it, “No one likes to walk on jagged riprap. No one.”

The riprap game-changer

DSW’s Security and Maintenance groups saw the proposal to add riprap around the substation’s perimeter as the most cost-effective and permanent solution.

The engineers presented the design to Engineering and Construction Manager Teresita Amaro, who gave the green light.

“The value of the solution we arrived at was its efficiency and effectiveness,” said Amaro. “It offered an added layer of security at minimal cost.”

The engineering team developed project documents, including an independent government estimate and scope of work, laying the groundwork for procurement actions.

Management and Program Analyst Tatiana Young, DSW’s budget liaison on the project, also played a vital role in securing operations and maintenance funding to finance the effort.

The transformation begins

Construction commenced on April 10, 2023. Oliver, who was also the contracting officer representative on the project, commented that the work proceeded ahead of schedule, “thanks to the contractor’s innovative approach and full commitment of resources.”

Over the course of two weeks, contractor DAP Construction laid approximately 400 tons of jagged riprap rocks, completing the project two weeks early.

The process involved not only the strategic placement of rocks but also the removal of all surrounding vegetation, such as bushes, tumbleweeds and trees. The cleanup effort also removed hazardous trash and debris from the former encampment areas. The finished product not only enhanced security but also gave the area a professional appearance.

After enveloping three sides of the substation’s fence lines with riprap, employees noticed an immediate change. Homeless individuals avoided venturing into the area. Riprap proved itself as an effective deterrent, just as Pflanz predicted.

“We believed riprap would deliver the results we needed, and we were not disappointed,” Pflanz said. “Other offices across WAPA facing similar circumstances may want to consider this approach as well.”

To further increase security, when Tucson Electric Power constructs its new substation fence it will close off the corridor outside the remaining westside fence line.

Security-focused result

“This innovative solution emphasizes the importance of safety and security, while reinforcing the integrity of critical electrical infrastructure,” said Buddenbrock.

More broadly, this engineering success shows WAPA’s commitment to its mission to “safely provide reliable, cost-based hydropower and transmission to our customers and the communities we serve.”

In accordance with the Power Forward 2030 strategic plan’s Objective 3.1, WAPA targets investments that “mitigate aging infrastructure, cyber and physical security threats, and other vulnerabilities to achieve measurable risk reduction and position the grid to successfully meet future generations’ needs.”

The Tucson Substation riprap installation showcases how WAPA carries out this charge in the physical security space.

As Amaro framed it, “The Tucson Substation’s riprap project serves as a testament to WAPA’s commitment to the power grid’s reliability and to the safety of its employees.”

Note: The author is a Public Affairs Specialist.

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Last modified on March 12th, 2024