Preparedness

Fire Departments Pushing for Expanded Use of Key Boxes

They’ve at least floated the idea of requiring the use of the so-called 'Knox Boxes' or “rapid key entry systems.

by Ray Gronberg, Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C. / October 25, 2018

(TNS) - Vance County officials want to prod more businesses to use a lockbox, only accessible to fire departments, to store keys to their buildings in so firefighters can respond more easily to alarms and other emergency calls.

They’ve at least floated the idea of requiring the use of the so-called “Knox Boxes” or “rapid key entry systems,” which are respectively a brand name and the government-bureaucrat generic reference for the outside-mount lockboxes.

But after a talk with County Manager Jordan McMillen, it appears now that they’ll ask elected officials the County Commissioners to instead pass a resolution asking Vance’s paid and volunteer fire departments to push for voluntary use of the devices.

“I think a resolution will be a better fit than an ordinance,” said Chris Wright, chief of the Vance County Fire Department. “It gives us the opportunity to go out and educate them.”

The request will go first to the commissioners’ public safety committee next week, and the strategy remains subject to change depending on what the trio of commissioners who serve on the panel have to say.

McMillen said the resolution option emerged because the state fire code already requires the use of the lockboxes in new commercial construction.

Some communities, such as Yadkin County in North Carolina just west of Winston-Salem, have gone further and required them in existing commercial buildings.

The Yadkin ordinance says its mandate applies to buildings with a sprinkler system or a centrally-monitored alarm system, and those that house hazardous materials.

The lockbox is a small safe into which business owners place keys to their buildings’ outside doors, and the important ones to inside spaces like the ones to mechanical-equipment rooms.

Fire departments have a master key to the lockboxes in their community from the boxes’ manufacturer, and can put it to use when there’s an emergency.

The benefit, firefighters like Wright say, is that when there’s a fire, or merely when an alarm or a sprinkler system goes off, they can get inside without necessarily having to break windows, doors or locks.

“It prevents us from causing any more property damage than maybe needs to be done,” Wright said, adding that it’s also a timesaver for departments when there’s an alarm because they don’t need to wait for a building’s owner or manager to arrive and let them in.

In the fire trade, the lockboxes are often called Knox Boxes because the most popular brand by far is made by the Arizona-based Knox Co.

For Yadkin County’s program, the company advertises that its standard- and maximum-sized vaults sell for anywhere from $323 to $658 apiece. That doesn’t include installation costs.

The boxes have created some security concerns that a consultant highlighted in 2013 by ordering a vault and a blank key from Knox, then reverse-engineering the master key.

A counter, pointed out at the time, was to make sure the company only ships to customers vaults that have everything but a door. The doors, in turn, go to the local fire department, which puts them on.

Wright said that’s the procedure locally.

“They’ll ship the box to the business itself, the business will have it installed, and then contact the Fire Department to come install the door, so you can secure the keys and lock it,” he said.

Other consultants, with a Washington-state firm called Silva Consultants, have pointed out that a customer can lose out if the master key gets stolen or somehow compromised at the fire department. It’s also at least theoretically possible for a thief with “ample time” to either break into or steal the entire box and disassemble it.

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©2018 Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C.

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