How Safe Is Your Safe?

“Safes are the jeweler’s last bastion of defense against burglary and theft,” says security expert David Sexton, vice president of special accounts for Jewelers Mutual Insurance. “That’s why we and other insurers look so critically at the physical protection they provide.”

How safe is your high-security safe? Does it use burglary-resistant composite materials and intricate locking and relocking devices? Can it meet the weight limits of high-rise installations and today’s elevators? Does it use digital locks to prevent unauthorized entry? Most important, has it been certified to resist physical attack for a specific period of time?

UL label. Simply put, a burglary-resistant safe is a container designed to protect valuables from break-in. It does this with steel, intricate locks (both mechanical and digital), relocking devices, and composite “buffer” or “barrier” materials (such as metal alloys) in the body and door of the safe that can resist various tools and sometimes even explosives.

Safes that are certified as burglary-resistant bear the metal label of Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), a 105-year-old independent, not-for-profit product safety certification organization. They’re also listed in the UL’s Burglary Protection Equipment Directory (see sidebar). Because the UL is universally respected for its objectivity, insurance underwriters nationwide rely on its tests, standards, and ratings when writing policies for safes.

The UL’s rigorous testing is conducted by burglary experts using a variety of devices, including diamond grinding wheels, high-speed drills with pressure-applying devices, carbide-tip drills, and hand tools such as hammers and chisels. The tests are conducted under ideal laboratory conditions, unlike those a real burglar usually encounters. Security experts say it could take a typical burglar as much as three or four times longer to crack a UL-tested safe. Thus, the UL rating represents the minimum protection a safe is certified to provide.

Underwriters Laboratories uses 10 classifications or ratings for burglary-resistant safes. They are, in increasing order of protection: TL-15; Deposit Safe; TL-30; TRTL-30; TL-15X6; TL-30X6; TRTL-15X6; TRTL-30 X6; TRTL-60X6; TXTL-60X6. Each letter and number of the rating code represents a different aspect of security that the safe provides.

Burglar’s tools. TL means a safe is tool-resistant, TR means it’s torch-resistant, TRTL indicates that it’s tool- and torch-resistant, and TXTL stands for torch-, tool-, and explosives-resistant.

Extent of resistance. The numbers 15, 30, and 60 represent the number of minutes a safe will withstand a series of attacks. The longer a safe can resist a break-in, the more likely it is that burglars will flee and that police or security guards will arrive before any jewelry is stolen.

Sides of a safe. X6 means a safe provides equal protection on all six sides (including top and bottom). When X6 isn’t listed, it means the safe provides protection only on its front face and door.

Thus, a TRTL-30X6 UL rating means a safe is certified to resist entry from torch and tools on all six sides for a half-hour. A TL-15 rating means a safe can resist physical attack from tools to its front face or door for 15 minutes.

Routine reviews. A UL label is not a permanent stamp of approval. Under a program begun in the 1990s, the UL routinely reviews all UL-listed security products every seven years. This follow-up is intended to assure the public (and the UL) that consumers are buying a unit exactly like the one that originally passed the UL test and that manufacturers are keeping pace with criminals.

“The tools available to the bad guys are getting better all the time, and the bad guys are getting smarter, too,” says Steve Schmit, UL associate managing engineer, who’s in charge of the safe-testing program at the UL facility in Northbrook, Ill. “So, products that have passed our tests in the past have to be ‘re-proofed.'”

Moreover, during the seven-year period between reviews, a safe manufacturer’s certification can be suspended or revoked if investigation reveals that a product no longer meets UL requirements. In July 2000, for example, the UL issued a public notice to the insurance and jewelry trade industries that two commercial TRTL-15X6 safes “identified by their name plates as being manufactured by Soltam Limited of Haifa, Israel, may not provide the anticipated level of protection against a burglary attack.” UL suspended Soltam Ltd.’s use of its label on those safes.

Safe buying. Sexton has advice for jewelers in the market for high-security burglary-resistant safes. “First, contact your insurance company to find out which safes your insurance carrier will accept for any given level of inventory,” he says. Insurance firms that specialize in Jewelers Block insurance coverage also have information on safe vendors that work principally with the jewelry industry. Many deal in used safes, too, and offer national distribution of both new and used products.

“Keep in mind the growth potential of your business,” says Sexton. “Don’t purchase a safe which only provides adequate protection for today’s inventory. Consider one that can protect the value of tomorrow’s inventory, as well. A jeweler may currently only need a safe to store $500,000 in inventory, but if he plans to grow to $1 million in inventory in the near future, he may want to buy a TRTL-30X6 now instead of a TRTL 15X6. [Doing so] can also save the jeweler the cost of redesigning the premises later to accommodate the higher-security safe.”

When comparing costs, remember that the UL rating affects prices: Expect those with the higher UL rating to cost more. For example, the high-security safes produced by John Tann Co., one of the oldest and most respected names in the safe business, can cost from $2,000 to $10,000 for TL-15 and TL-30 safes and $30,000 for TRTL-30X6 safes.

“Ask if transportation, rigging, delivery, and installation costs are included in the quoted price,” Sexton advises. Find out how the safe will be delivered to you, and by whom. “High-security burglary-resistant safes need special expertise in transport and handling,” he notes, because of the relock devices in the doors. “If a safe is accidentally dropped, the relock mechanism can be triggered,” causing the safe to lock.

Stronger barriers. Safe technology has undergone improvements in some critical areas. For example, the amount of “barrier” material-the “filling” between outside and inside walls-has been increased and the science of construction materials continues to advance, says Schmit. “The concrete mixes a manufacturer uses today [in barrier construction] have a lot more strength than 10 years ago, and there are also more composites in barriers,” he notes. “People are casting molten metal and concrete together, and there is more use in barrier material of rods made of space-age ceramics. If a crook with a jackhammer is able to chip away at the concrete inside, he suddenly runs into these tough ceramics.”

Manufacturers also are developing stronger-but-lighter materials that create lighter-weight containers. For example, Empire Safe Co., one of the industry’s leading suppliers, has a new line of TRTL safes made of a lightweight material the company calls “copper-alumina.” The new material is not only more torch-resistant but also more lightweight than similar 15X6 or 30X6 safes, says company president Richard Krasilovsky.

“That’s an important factor when shipping safes,” he notes, “[especially when] moving them in and out of high-rise locations, into elevators with weight load limits, or to locations with weight restrictions. It also affects the freight costs to ship that safe. The difference in cost of shipping a safe weighing 5,000 pounds and one weighing 3,500 can be significant.”

High-security safes are being designed to fit into narrower spaces or corners, he says, and to accommodate more jewelry, gems, and watches.

Another interesting development, says Robert F. Mancini of the Mancini Safe Co., Norwood, Mass., involves relockers, which automatically close down a safe in case of attempted entry. The company’s new ISM TL-30 Bullion safe, for example, has a thicker door slab than its competitors and glass plate relockers in both the combination and key locks. (Most TL-30s have just one glass plate; some have none.) The combination and key locks are mounted on top of the glass. Any attempted penetration of either lock triggers the multiple relockers, barring entry by anyone.

Smart locks. Meanwhile, says UL’s Schmit, there is growing demand for electronic digital locks ($300 to $1,000), which use computer chip-based packages behind safes’ dials instead of traditional mechanical levers and bars. Depending on the commercial user’s needs, these locks perform a variety of functions besides keeping the safe closed. The Mas-Hamilton Auditron lock on the newest Mosler safes, for example, provides time delay, dual controls, audit trails, and supervisor/subordinate operations, while Worldwide Safe and Vault’s TL-30 has an auxiliary electronic combination lock with an automatic bolt-engaging function. It also lets jewelers program several user codes to open the safe, eliminating service costs for combination changes related to employee turnover.

Also increasingly in demand by jewelers is the electronic time lock-a common feature in the banking industry. A keypad lets a jeweler program the daily opening and closing of the safe and adjust for Daylight Savings Time or days when the store is closed.

Time locks (which can cost up to $1,500) can deter crime in other ways, too, says Krasilovsky. “Putting a counter sign near the cashier that says the store safe has a time lock which can’t be opened after hours is a deterrent to those people who know about time locks,” he notes.

There is a risk, according to some safe experts, that a digital lock will malfunction and fail to open. But most time locks feature two movements, one mechanical and the other electronic, so that even if one does go bad, the other will still work.