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    The smart grid is the next generation of technology keeping the lights on in Illinois homes and businesses, and many of the next generation of crewmen to service it are coming out of training facilities in Belleville.
p01 amerenA ring of power poles used during a training session at the Metro East Training Center of Ameren Illinois in Belleville.

Ameren Illinois photo
    Rookie employees and seasoned linemen are among those passing through Ameren Illinois’ Metro East Training Center along Illinois Route 15. For some it’s more of a learning experience than others.
    “A lot of our folks are used to doing it the way they’ve done it for years. And the smart grid technology is different,” said Marvin Morey, manager of Electric Training & Quality Assurance. “It’s new — and not everybody accepts change well. But as we get our training across to them, they are accepting of why we are doing it and the theory behind it.”
    Smart technology is being installed across the service area to modernize how the electric and natural gas utility distributes power and to make things more efficient for customers and the company. New substations, sensors, switches and —to a lesser degree in Metro East — smart meters are all part of the program.
    It’s a new era for journeyman crewmembers, and apprentice trainees are arriving right in the thick of it.
    Ameren Illinois has added 191 employees in the Metro East since 2012. Overall, across its service territory, it has  added more than 800 employees. The company employs 3,000 in Illinois.
    In part, Ameren Illinois is keeping up with the times. Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, and the utility business is part of it.
    “In our industry a lot of workers are at or near the age of retirement. We’re bringing on new people so they can learn from the older people,” Morey said.
    Since 2012 in the Metro East, Ameren Illinois has added 59 smart switches to its power lines and 20 sensors in substations, with more to come this year. The new generation of automated and remotely controllable devices can determine appropriate switching actions to reduce the number of customers affected by an outage and work to restore power quickly, spokesman Brian Bretsch said.
    “We had an outage last year caused by lightning impacting 1,700 customers. Switches and sensors restored power to a majority of customers within seconds rather hours,” he said. “The first switch detected the loss voltage and initiated an automatic transfer of power by opening and closing a second switch. Within seconds, 1,100 customers were back on. We isolated the impacted area and used an automated switch on the system to restore the remaining 600 customers.”
    Metro East is still waiting on the latest generation of smart meters. The closest such equipment is being installed in places like Hillsboro and Sparta, they said. Those are being evaluated before a wider rollout occurs. Most smart meter training is done in Ameren Illinois’ Decatur operations.
    “Overall (in Illinois), we have installed 250,000 electric meters and 110,000 natural gas meters,” Bretsch said.
    For Ameren Illinois, it’s the greatest modernization of its electric and natural gas grids in almost 50 years, a multi-billion investment over 10 years.
    “In addition to the automated and smart technology we are adding to the electric grid, we are storm hardening the electric delivery system. Our crews are installing stronger poles to withstand storms, resizing transformers to meet future capacity needs for customers, and are constructing new overhead and underground lines,” Bretsch said.  “On the natural gas side of our business, we continue to invest in stronger, corrosion-resistant distribution pipes.”

p01 ransomware    On Saturday, Feb. 20, a local business owner, a John Doe who wishes to remain anonymous, went into his office to get some work done. He tried to access a file on his computer — nothing.  He tried three or four different files. He couldn’t open any of them. He did a directory search and found the Le Chiffre virus was attached to every one of them.  Le Chiffre, one of many computer viruses generically referred to as ransomware, is a virus that encrypts all the files on your computer. Others include Reveton, CryptoLocker, TorrentLocker, Cryptowall and KeRanger.
    If you have been hit with a ransomware virus, when you try to access any of the files on your computer, you get a pop up that tells you that your files have been encrypted. The popup also demands a ransom and sets a deadline for payment. If the ransom, which is generally demanded in Bitcoin, an untraceable digital currency system, is released by the deadline, the hackers promise to send a code you can use to decrypt your files. If not, the ransom amount doubles; a new deadline is set; and, if that is not paid in time, they threaten to delete all of your files. However, like any other kidnapping for ransom, there is no guarantee that they will send the code and not delete your files.    
    Doe said he didn’t know how the virus got into his computer. It could have been via an email; through a download; or it could have been by what’s called a blunt force attack in which the hackers used software to decipher his password. PC World magazine has reported that ransomware is typically distributed through spam messages that try to trick people into opening attachments such as fake invoices.
    Doe called the Madison County Sheriff’s office and the FBI but there was nothing either could do. It’s not possible to even determine where in the world the hackers were. He called his insurance company but ransom is not covered. He called some friends who are computer experts. Their advice — pay the ransom. He did. It was $2,200. Luckily, Doe received the code and was able to decrypt his files but the hackers let him know that they would be back.
    “The frustrating part is if somebody steals my computer or steals anything out of this office, I’m covered by insurance,” Doe said. “With this, the Sheriff’s Office was very sorry it happened to me. The FBI was very sorry it happened to me. But no one could do anything about it and my insurance wouldn’t cover it. I’ve been violated.  I’ve been robbed but there’s not anything that can really be done about it.”  
    While Doe wished to remain anonymous, he also wanted to warn others of the danger of being hit with ransomware that could happen any time. It’s virtually impossible to keep them out if they want to get in, he said, so the best policy is to back-up your files often to minimize losses and do it such that the hackers can’t also access your back-up. If they do, they encrypt that, too.
    Lt. David Vucich of the Madison County Sheriff’s Office is the department’s computer forensics detective and a member of the FBI’s Cyber Crimes Task Force known as the Metro-East Computer Crimes Task Force. He said that ransomware is a growing problem but it’s not known how great it is because there’s no way of knowing how many victims choose not to report it to the authorities.
    “I first became aware of this about five or six years ago,” Vucich said. “These hackers frequently target small businesses because obviously they have limited funding to safeguard their computers; frequently lack training in IT security and; are not up to date on new malware, how to recognize it and what to do about it.”
    But small businesses are not the only ones at risk. A California hospital, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, was attacked in February and had to pay the hackers $17,000 to release its files. Methodist Hospital in Henderson, Ky., was hit in March.

p01 kellyJeannine Kellyp01 mikekellyMike Kelly stands on the balcony of the newly rebuilt third floor of the Kendall Cracker Factory in Alton.    ALTON — Many people look at deteriorating buildings and see history in decline. Mike and Jeannine Kelly look at such structures and see history in the making.
    The brother and sister are slowly putting a shine on what could be an Alton of the future.
    Between them, they have acquired several of the city’s most historic properties, mainly along the Broadway corridor. Their rehab projects stand at various stages but what’s been accomplished so far is true community restoration.
    Mike Kelly bought the Kendall Cracker Factory at 201 E. Broadway in the late 1990s, but only recently has the property really taken shape. Kelly always had serious intentions for the structure but fate got in the way twice — first when he was called up for active military duty with the U.S. Marine Corps and then when a devastating storm struck the building in 2009, tearing off the third story.
    “I kind of walked that line between being here and not being here,” he said of his military service. “The building sat as a vacant, two-story structure for a long time while we went through determining if it was a viable project. It came very close to being a grass lot.”
    Those who treasure history are glad he’s pursued the project. Today, several high-end apartments are completed in the building — and those who stay there are treated to a magnificent view of the Mississippi River.
    Tearing down a building constructed in the 1860s would have gone against everything the brother and sister have separately worked for the last few decades.
    The siblings grew up in Wood River. Jeannine fell in love with Alton after moving there to live with her grandmother as a teenager. Her grandmother had an Alton antique shop, which gave rise to a great coincidence years later.
    “Sam Thames owned (the Cracker Factory) and when Michael was going to buy it, we were walking through it and found an old barnwood sign that I had painted for my grandmother when I was in the sixth grade,” Jeannine said. “It had old ballooned letters that said, ‘Antiques,’ and it was in a shop here.”
    It was “a sign” her brother was supposed to buy the building, she said at the time.
    From the outside, the building still appears to be a largely vacated part of Alton’s antique district. Inside, however, a series of apartments have been completed — and are proving a real draw. The three-floor building offers one of the best residential views of the Mississippi River in the entire city. Kelly began renting them out last July.
    In rebuilding the storm-destroyed third floor from scratch, Kelly used a different design but still retained many of the architectural features.
    The top two floors are complete. People can rent the guest lodging for an evening, a weekend or several months. The second floor has three smaller apartment units. The newly built third floor is one big, two-bedroom, two-bath penthouse with a large great room, kitchen, dining and living area all in one space, With a tremendous view of Riverfront Park and the Clark Bridge, it is perfect for parties — including the July 4th fireworks celebration, he said.

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    ALTON – Simmons Hanly Conroy is proud to announce the 12th Annual Simmons Employee Foundation Golf Tournament will benefit two area charities dedicated to providing medical services to sick children in need. This year’s recipients are Friends of Wings and World Pediatric Project, both located in St. Louis.   

“As a law firm that focuses on helping people suffering from unjust medical injuries, our board members were especially moved by the missions of these charities to help children diagnosed with serious illnesses,” said SEF Director Amy Fair, R.N., and the firm’s director of Medical Relations. “We are honored to play some small part in helping children who may not normally be able to receive the care and support they need.”

As part of the BJC Healthcare network, the Friends of Wings program provides supportive care and hospice to children up to 21, diagnosed with terminal illnesses throughout the St. Louis Metropolitan area. Established in 1997, Friends of Wings aims to comfort children and their families through an approach that demonstrates the importance of quality of life. The program offers many services to its patients, including nursing, medical social services, pain management, spiritual support and more. Friends of Wings provides its services at no cost to low-income families and relies on community support and fundraisers. This allows the children and their families to focus solely on quality of life.

World Pediatric Project (WPP), founded in 2001, provides pediatric surgical, diagnostic and preventative resources to children in developing countries. This goal is achieved by partnering with hospitals and physicians in St. Louis and around the country to provide treatment to children needing medical attention. Medical teams travel to patients in partner countries to assess treatment needs. When more complex care is required, WPP also transports patients to U.S.-based, or more advanced facilities for treatment. Funds raised by WPP assist in paying travel accommodations for patients and their families. Additionally, the program works locally to provide vital dental care to over 400 children from low-income St. Louis area families.

“These are two great causes,” Fair said. “I encourage everyone to come out and have some fun while helping fund treatment and supportive care to children who, without these programs, won’t get needed medical care.”

This year’s tournament will take place Friday, June 24, at the Spencer T. Olin Golf Course in Alton. Organized in a four-person scramble format, the event costs $100 per player or $400 per team. Entry fees include green fees, cart rental, lunch or dinner, refreshments and a complimentary gift. One hundred percent of the net proceeds from the tournament will benefit the charities.

To reserve your team’s slot in the tournament, register early as space in both the morning and afternoon flights will fill up quickly. For more information about registration and sponsorships, contact Amy Steibel at (618) 259-2222 or by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Information about this year’s charities can be found by visiting their websites here and here.

About Simmons Employee Foundation

In late 2004, the employees of Simmons Hanly Conroy came together to create a single, streamlined way for them to give back to the communities they are so proud to call home.  As a result of their creativity and heartfelt commitment, the Simmons Employee Foundation, has provided more than $1 million of financial support and countless volunteer hours to local charitable organizations.

About Simmons Hanly Conroy, LLC

Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC is one of the nation’s largest mass tort law firms and has recovered more than $5 billion in verdicts and settlements for plaintiffs. Primary areas of litigation include asbestos and mesothelioma, pharmaceutical, consumer protection, environmental and personal injury. The firm’s attorneys have been appointed to leadership in numerous national multidistrict litigations, including Vioxx, Yaz and Toyota Unintended Acceleration. The firm also represents small and mid-size corporations, inventors and entrepreneurs in matters involving business litigation. Offices are located in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Alton. Read more at www.simmonsfirm.com.