Introduction to Burglar and Fire Safes
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a safe as: "a place or receptacle to keep articles (as valuables) safe". Another common definition of a safe is: "a metal container having a lock, used for storing valuables".
Safes have been used for hundreds of years to protect valuables of all types, including cash, jewelry, art, and other precious objects. Safes are also used to protect to secret formulas, inventions, and other types of sensitive or classified information. Most businesses, retail stores, and many private residences have at least one safe.
As common as safes are, there are many misconceptions about them. Within this article, we will attempt to clear up these misconceptions and provide some basic guidelines for choosing a safe for your business.
Types of Safes
The first thing to know is that there are two general categories of safes: burglar safes, and fire safes. As you would expect, burglar safes are designed to provide protection against burglary, and fire safes are designed to provide protection against fire. Unfortunately, the things that are needed to provide protection against a forced-entry are not necessarily the same things that are needed to protect against fire, so safes are usually designed to provide protection against one or the other, but not both.
While some burglar safes provide a limited degree of protection against fire, and some fire safes provide limited resistance to burglary, a specialized safe of one type or the other is generally needed to provide the best protection against either fire or burglary.
Burglar safes are designed to provide protection against forced-entry. Burglars use a variety of tools to break into safes, including common hand tools, power tools, cutting torches, chemicals, and explosives. A burglar safe can be designed to resist each of these types of attacks, but specific materials and construction techniques must be used to protect against each type of threat.
It is important to note that no safe is burglar-proof - any safe can be opened if the burglar has the right tools, the proper skills, and a sufficient amount of time. The purpose of the safe is to deter burglaries, prevent thefts by unskilled thieves, and delay the skilled burglar. When used with other security measures, such as intrusion alarm systems, a safe can provide a delay that increases the chances that the burglar will be apprehended or flee the premises before the burglary is completed.
Burglar safes are classified based upon the types of burglary tools that they are designed to resist, and the amount of time that a burglar with these tools needs to penetrate the safe. The more types of tools that the safe is designed to resist, and the longer it takes to penetrate it, the better the protection.
There are two methods used to classify safes: construction ratings, and performance ratings.
Construction ratings rank safes on the way that they are constructed, such as the type and thickness of the materials used. Common construction ratings include "B-rated safes", "C-rated safes" , and "B/C-rated safes". Construction rating methods were used by the safe industry in the past, but this method of rating has become less popular in recent years. One drawback to this rating system is that there is no independent testing or validation of the ratings - manufacturers can simply claim a rating based upon the way that the safe is constructed. Also, there is no guarantee that the safe will resist any specific type of attack for any specific amount of time, although this may be implied.
Performance ratings rank safes according to written standards developed by an independent testing laboratory. The preeminent testing laboratory in the United States is Underwriters Laboratories (UL). A written standard, called UL 687, provides rigorous requirements that safes must conform to in order to display a UL rating. UL 687 provides specific ratings based upon the types of burglary tools used and the amount of time that a safe can delay an attack. These ratings are designated using an alphanumeric code, such as "TL-15", "TRTL-30", etc. The following codes are used within the ratings:
TL = Tool-Resistant: designed to resist attack from common hand tools and power tools.
TR = Torch-Resistant: designed to resist attack from cutting torches.
TX = Explosive and Torch-Resistant: designed to resist attack from explosives and torches.
15 = Designed to resist attacks for a minimum of fifteen minutes.
30 = Designed to resist attacks for a minimum of thirty minutes.
60 = Designed to resist attacks for a minimum of sixty minutes.
The codes are combined to form the safe's rating. The following are some examples of commonly used ratings for commercial safes:
TL-15 = Tool-Resistant Safe, fifteen-minute rating.
TL-30 = Tool-Resistant Safe, thirty-minute rating.
TRTL-15 = Torch-and-Tool-Resistant Safe, fifteen-minute rating.
TRTL-30 = Torch-and-Tool-Resistant Safe, thirty-minute rating.
TXTL-60 = Torch, Explosive, and Tool-Resistant Safe, sixty-minute rating.
The basic rating system is based on the safe's ability to provide protection against an attack on the safe's door and door face, the most common points of forced entry. An additional rating is provided for safes that provide protection on all six sides (face, top, bottom, back, left side, and right side.) These safes receive the additional designator "X6", which is appended to the basic rating. An example of such a rating would be "TL-15X6", which would be a Tool-Resistant Safe that provides protection for fifteen minutes on all six sides of the safe.
Many people are shocked when they hear that some UL rated burglar safes can be penetrated in as little as sixteen minutes. Keep in mind that UL conducts its tests using expert safe crackers in a laboratory setting, and that these safe crackers study construction blueprints of each safe before they crack it. While a world-class burglar might be able to crack a TL-15 safe in 16 minutes, it would probably take the average burglar an hour or more, even if he was reasonably skilled. TL-30 and TL-60 safes are even more difficult to crack, putting them beyond the capabilities of all but the most professional of burglars.
Fire safes are designed to provide protection of the safe's contents against damage caused by fire. Just as burglar safes are not "burglar-proof", fire safes are not "fire-proof" - they only provide resistance to a certain type of fire for a certain period of time - hopefully long enough for the fire department to arrive and extinguish the blaze.
Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has a comprehensive system for the rating of fire safes. This rating system classifies safes based upon the assets that they are designed to store, the expected temperature of the fire, and the time period that the assets are to be protected. The rating system also envisions situations where a safe may be located on the upper floor of a building, and due to a fire, the safe falls through the floor to the floor below. In these situations, the safe must provide protection against the initial fire, resist the damage caused by the drop to the floor below, and continue to provide protection as the safe lies within the burning rubble.
There are three main UL rating categories for fire safes:
UL Class 350: keeps safe contents at a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit or less and at a humidity of 85% or less for the specified time period. Suitable for storage of paper documents.
UL Class 150: keeps safe contents at a temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit or less and at a humidity of 85% or less for the specified time period. Suitable for storage of magnetic tape, optical media such as CDs and DVDs, and paper documents.
UL Class 125: keeps safe contents at a temperature of 125 degrees Fahrenheit or less and at a humidity of 80% or less for the specified time period. Provides highest level of protection. Suitable for storage of most all electronic media and paper documents. Class 125 rated safes also have water-resistant seals on the safe door to prevent the entry of water.
Class 350, Class 150, and Class 125 ratings are further defined by a minimum time period during which the safe provides the specified level of protection. Time period ratings of one-half hour, one-hour, two-hour, three-hour, and four-hour are available. For example, a Class 350 One-Hour Safe would keep its contents at a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit or less for a minimum of one-hour.
Unless specifically stated otherwise by the manufacturer, Class 350, Class 150, and Class 125 safes are not rated to resist burglary. While a fire safe that is equipped with a high-security lock does provide some protection against an amateur thief, a professional burglar can open most fire safes in just a matter of minutes.
Guidelines for Choosing a Safe
Safes should be specifically chosen based on the types of assets that they will protect and the types of threats that these assets face. A security risk assessment should be conducted to determine the type or types of safes that your facility will require.
Consult with your insurance company to determine if they have minimum requirements for safes and to determine if insurance discounts are available if certain types of safes are used.
If you are in a regulated industry, determine if there are any specific regulatory requirements for safes. For example, some government contractors are required to store classified documents in safes that meet certain minimum standards.
In general, the better protection a safe provides, the more it costs, and the more it weighs. While it would be foolish to protect a million dollars worth of assets in a $500 safe, it also doesn't make sense to spend $10,000 for a safe that will be used to store a $500 petty cash fund.
For best results, choose safes that have a recognized UL rating. Be careful when choosing a safe that has a letter rating (B, B4, C, E, F, M, etc.) unless it also has a UL rating (TL-15, etc.) While there are some non-UL-rated safes that can provide adequate protection, you are always taking a chance when you buy a non-rated safe. Watch out for claims of burglary-resistance or fire resistance that are not substantiated by a specific UL rating.
If you have a need for a safe that provides protection against both burglary and fire, choose a UL rated burglar safe that has fire-protective cladding added to it. When choosing this option, first be sure that the safe has the UL burglary rating that you require, and then determine the level of fire protection that the safe also provides. Safes in this category are harder to find and generally only available from larger safe manufacturers.
Purchase your safe from a well-known and reputable supplier, not just someone you have found on the web that seems to offer the lowest price. Buying a safe from a reputable local dealer in your community has many advantages, not the least of which is the dealer's ability to provide prompt on-site service in the event of a problem. (Do you really want to return your 2,000 pound safe back to the factory for service?)
Most safes sold through office supply channels (Costco, OfficeMax, Staples, etc) are fire-rated (if rated at all) and provide minimal protection against burglary. Some safes sold in office supply or retail stores have a UL RSC (Residential Security Container) rating. This rating provides protection against tool attacks for only five minutes and is not recommended for commercial use.
(See related Security Tip: Electronic Safe Locks)
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Published May, 2016