Everything you need to know about safes

November 2009

We asked Mutual Austen Safe and Security Group,
manufacturers of safes, to highlight the critical facts that consumers should know when buying a safe. Here is what they had to say.

Putting cost in perspective
People will think nothing of spending R2500 on a refrigerator to protect R500 worth of goods. But they often baulk when it is suggested that they should buy a Category 1 safe to protect R5000 or more in cash, or irreplaceable records, the loss of which could cost an individual tens of thousands of rands.”
Does a safe date?
According to Mutual Safe, many home owners are not aware that their safe or fire-resisting cabinet does date. A safe will not last forever and will need to be replaced due to the pace of technological advancement.
Choosing a safe
Remember, a safe is not only a security barrier but also a fire barrier. Before installing a safe, take into account the following:
* Do a thorough assessment of the risk involved.

* Assess the value of contents that the safe will be required to protect.

* Take note of the recommendations and requirements of the insurers.

* Understand the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) grading system for safes and fire-resisting equipment.
Look from the criminals’ point of view
What would be the thief’s best option for opening the door (aside from the owner being forced to do so)? He will try and make a hole through the body of the safe in order to remove what he can. Or he will remove the entire safe and perform the break-in elsewhere.
Where is your safe located?
A safe that is fully visible to passers-by is less likely to be attacked than one that is concealed in a back room. In the case of fire resistant safes, it is advisable to place your safe somewhere where it is within easy access.
Safes under 750 kg should always be anchored to the floor. This should be done using secure bolt fixings or channels which have been welded to the safe. Do not fool yourself into thinking that a heavy safe cannot be moved. Safes have been removed bodily from premises by the use of transport mechanisms such as golf balls, tube rollers or loose carpets.
What makes up a safe?
A good quality safe door made to SABS specifications would usually consist of an inner and outer plate with some form of barrier material sandwiched between them. It is this material which can actually keep the thief out.
This sandwich is combined with an intricate arrangement of bolts, locks and locking devices. Very often the thief will attempt to pierce the door using a high-speed drill or angle grinder to get at these mechanisms and open the door. Good quality safes are, however, designed for this attack method and all vulnerable points are gathered into a small area which is provided with maximum protection. The thief is forced to try and make an aperture large enough for his hand and this, of course, is a more noisy and time-consuming operation.
Explosives would seem to be the solution for the determined thief wanting to destroy a lock, however new locking devices, which are activated by an explosion, are built into certain modern safes to prevent this. The bolt-work system in the door is a further foil against explosives.
The barrier material provides the main protection against attack; there are many different barrier types, each determining the level of resistance required of the safe.
Locks and keys
Safe and vault doors may have either keylocks, keyless combination locks, time locks, digital locks or a combination of these.
A combination lock still provides the best form of safe locking and it is highly unlikely that a thief would be able to crack the combination of the safe door unless he has some idea of the numbers on which it has been set. Keyless combination locks can offer up to 100 000 000 changes of code. Any number between 0 and 100 can be used. The numbers do not bear any relation to the other and any sequence of single numbers can be mixed with multiples at will. The operation of the lock is simple and quick.
A combination lock can be readily changed by its custodian, but beware of being careless by inputting obvious combinations or displaying the code in a place where it can be sourced.
Multiple controls can be achieved by the use of more than one keylock, a combination lock or a mixture of both. If going this route, the most important factor is the strict supervision of keys, codes and time settings. If duplicate keys are required, reputable safe manufacturers and locksmiths require a registered owner to provide a letter of authority.
Duplicate keys or copies of codes should be housed under seal with a bank or somewhere similar. Most insurance money policies require that keys be removed from the premises out of normal working hours and when people are not present in the area in which the safe is located.
To ensure a safe owner has absolute control, a reputable safe manufacturer keeps no records whatsoever of lever combinations or the shape of keys. Safe keys are often very long and they may be made in two parts. The essential part of the key, the bit, is detachable and can be carried on a key ring while the stem, valueless by itself, remains by the safe or door.
Time delay locks delay the opening of a safe for as short a period as one minute after the safe door has been activated by key or combination. These are effective in situations of armed hold-ups.
Digital locks are another option.
Alarm your safe area
An alarm system in the area where your safe is located adds double protection and serves as an early warning system that your safe area is under threat.
The tools used by criminals
Criminals will use a variety of tools to break safes. The most common include hammers, chisels, high-speed drills and electric angle grinders. Other methods are thermic lances and oxy-acetylene torches. The SABS indicates which tools specific categories of safes are capable of resisting.
The SABS do performance tests, but these can only be considered guidelines. If in doubt, ask your insurance broker for advice. The Insurance Assocation’s recommendations concerning cash holding limits for each type of safe will give an idea of how the insurance industry rates a particular safe.
Consult your insurer first
Before deciding on the purchase of a safe or fire-resistant cabinet, it is recommended that one’s insurers be contacted and consulted on the following:
1. The risk
* How attractive is the risk to the criminal?

* Have the premises had experience of burglary or fire?

* How vulnerable is the inner material that will be stored in the fire-resisting cabinet?
2. The environment
</i>* Are the premises in a highly populated area, and if so, will excessive noise be likely to attract attention?
* Are the surroundings well lit?
* Is the area patrolled frequently by police and security guards?
* Are the premises occupied at night?
* Are the normal tools of trade on the premises such as might be used for safe-breaking or are such tools available from neighbouring premises?
* Are the contents of the premises such that they are likely to cause high temperatures in incidence of fire?
* Do adjoining premises present a high fire risk?</i>
3. Existing or planned defences
* Are all the windows and external doors fitted with quality locks and other worthwhile physical protections?

* Is the perimeter of the environment alarmed, and will the safe itself be alarmed?

* Is the alarm connected to a central monitoring station belonging to a South African Intruder Detection Services Association (SAIDSA) registered alarm company?

* Is the safe adequately secured or anchored? Safes of 750 kg and under need to be secured.

* If there is already a safe, check on it, find out what its cash holding limit is and whether it is capable of resisting the latest criminal weapons.

* Is there a fire protection system such as smoke detectors or automatic sprinkler system?

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