The Self-Storage Security Chain

Richard Morahan and Christopher Shope Comments
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Think of the security elements of your facility as parts of a chain. Your security system will never be stronger than its weakest link. Let's take a look at each element of that system, and how you can bolster it to maximize effectiveness.

Create a Secure Environment

The layout of your facility is your first line of defense and the first thing your renter sees. Try to build sight lines into your facility from the street. Thieves like to work in private. Besides looking unthreatening and inviting to a renter, an open, accessible facility keeps the spotlight on criminal behavior. Those lights won't do any good if activity can't be seen from the street.

If you have automatic gates, make sure you have entrance and exit keypads. Link those keypads to your computer system to record the duration of your renters' visits. In many cases, thieves rent units and legally enter your facility. Then they are free to roam the place and break in during off hours. If you record visits, they just might not want to rent with you at all. If they do, you will have a record of their activities. And make sure your cameras can record license plates and faces going in and out--thieves like anonymity.

Moreover, thieves are not your only security concern these days. In the past, you only had to worry about the bad guys breaking in. Now you have to worry about them moving in. Throughout rural America, methamphetamine labs have been cropping up in self-storage facilities. Your local police can give you tips on how to detect them (see also "Speed Kills ... Profits!," Inside Self-Storage, February 2000). The same security devices that deter thieves, such as cameras and exit and entrance records, can deter these and other criminals who might be attracted to the convenience and anonymity self-storage facilities provide.

Know Your Manager and Your Renter

The next link in your security chain is your office. Actually, it's the person behind the desk. You're giving the keys to your manager. Do you conduct criminal and credit checks? Even before deciding a person's competence, don't you want to decide their honesty?

If you don't want a thief managing your facility, you also don't want one renting a unit, so set up some simple procedures to screen your renters:

  • Require a valid picture ID, such as a driver's license or passport;
  • Record the license number of the renter's vehicle;
  • Send each new renter a welcome letter with the current "address service requested" notice for the post office;
  • Try to get a phone number at an address, rather than a cell phone;
  • Require emergency contact names with phone numbers and addresses on the lease.
  • Post a sign that states "For your safety, we require . . . etc."

When the renter enters your office, he may be impressed with the monitors that show your cameras surveying the grounds. Cameras and monitors are a powerful marketing tool, but the pictures don't offer much security if your manager can't see them. Have at least one monitor positioned so the manager can see what's happening, perhaps on a second wall or under the desk, where the public can't see it.

Select the Appropriate Hardware

So you've screened your renter, and now he is ready to fill and secure a unit. Do you offer door alarms? They are a powerful crime deterrent and a great marketing tool. Are they so powerful you don't need to lock your doors? Of course not. So why install a gate, cameras and door alarms, and then secure units with the cheapest locks you can find?

Every electronic device can be compromised or fail for one reason or another. Remember, security is like a chain. Why install a weak link at the door? The industry has recognized the value of the disk lock, with its hidden shackle, as a crime deterrent. But a disk lock is general category and can offer many different levels of security.

How can you judge a disk lock? Ask vendors for samples. Compare them, first by heft, weight and appearance. Which one feels stronger, has better looking welds? Which keyway fits snugly and sounds and feels secure when it locks? A smooth action usually means loose fitting parts, making the lock easy to pick or pry apart. Ask how many key codes the lock has. If you have 500 units, your locks should have at least 2,500 usable key codes. Look at the key. Is it the same type you see with padlocks? A disk lock's key doesn't trip a spring like a padlock's key. It has to push the shackle over--in the rain and in winter when it's icy and slushy. You may want a heavy-duty or even a thicker key, such as a tubular or dimpled key that won't stick or break in icy, wet or dusty conditions.

Some law-enforcement agencies and security consultants have been promoting the disk as the answer to theft, and it is much greater deterrent than most padlocks. But it, too, can be compromised. When you put a good disk lock on a self-storage security latch, the latch becomes the weaker link. A bolt cutter can cut both sides of a slider latch about as fast as it can cut most shackles. You don't cut a disk lock, you just bypass it. With all your other security links in place, you can certainly reduce the chance of this happening, but the fact remains: The disk lock is not the final answer to securing a door.

While law-enforcement and security consultants have viewed the disk as the highest possible security lock, they have begun to recognize its limitations. When presented with the cylinder lock-and-latch system, which eliminates the weak point of the latch, they have come to recognize that higher levels of door security are possible and practical.

Consider Upgrading With a Cylinder-Latch System

There is a way to secure a door by moving the lock inside the door with a cylinder-latch system. A cylinder system mounts flush on a door, so there are no locks or latches to cut. It presents a uniform front to a thief, so he cannot tell which units look more promising. But just like disk locks, cylinder locks have a number of levels of performance. Some cheap, prepackaged locks may be pickable. Cheap materials, especially cheap pins and springs, can compromise the design advantages of the cylinder. The cylinder should be punch-proof as well as drill-resistant.

There are two types of keyways commonly available for cylinder locks. The medium security option is a tubular type key, similar to the type found on many vending machines. This type of keyway is pick-resistant, but because of its popularity in many other applications, there are now dozens of books, tools and websites devoted to teaching thieves how to open it. It is not easy to pick a tubular lock, but it can be done by an experienced thief.

For a few dollars more, it might be worthwhile to consider a cylinder lock keyed with a restricted key blank, one that works with rotating disks instead of pins, or with some other method that is not so common. A restricted key blank allows for millions--not thousands--of potential key codes, to eliminate the possibility of duplicate codes that can be a problem in large facilities. With each cylinder individually assembled and recorded, there is no possibility of a duplicate code. With a hardened steel front and internal rotating disks, this type of cylinder is virtually drill- as well as punch-proof.

Take Advantage of Low- and No-Cost Security Programs

Stay in touch with local law enforcement. It can keep you up-to-date on criminal activity in your area. Some operators offer their facility for drug- and bomb-sniffing training. A picture of you, the local police chief and Rex the Wonder dog in your lobby can have a powerful effect on the wrong guy who is thinking of moving in. Just remember to put a big sign that announces "Training Session in Progress" outside your facility to remind patrons real drugs and bombs are not being used!

You should also participate in your local and national self-storage organizations. Security is one area in which we all have common interest. The public perception of self-storage remains positive. It will stay that way if every facility takes security seriously.

Set and Follow Regular Security Procedures

Conduct lock checks daily at different times every day. A visible manager promotes a feeling of security for renters and is a real deterrent to illegal behavior as well--you win on two fronts. Make sure your manager's behavior does not become too predictable. You don't want the bad guys working around his routine. You should also have a regular routine for rotating your surveillance tapes.

In an article of this length, there is only room to touch on the basics. Each security vendor of various system components--gates, access-control hardware and software, alarms, cameras, locks and latches--can present you with options. Just make sure there is a consistent level of security for each component or link in the chain. It is important to compare the products and their price tags and, most important, to make your security program part of your marketing. The right security package for your market can be a significant sales advantage.

Rich Morahan is the managing editor of The Self-Storage Telegram, an industry magazine that focuses on security, operations and marketing for the self-storage industry. Mr. Morahan is a frequent presenter at self-storage conferences. He has more than 20 years or experience as a marketing and communications consultant. He can be reached at 617.559.0177 or rmwrite@attbi.com.

Christopher Shope is the national marketing and sales director for Lock America Inc. (d.b.a. L.A.I. Group), which manufactures a complete line of security locks and custom-designed security hardware for self-storage and other industries. The L.A.I. team is committed to taking knowledge gained from other security industries and applying it to the self-storage market. For more information, call 800.422.2866; visit www.laigroup.com.

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