By Doug Carner
What is your concept of self-storage security? While a measure such as razor wire will deter criminals, its presence implies a crime issue that can make your facility uninviting. Wrought-iron fencing around a property’s perimeter is a strong barrier but is cost-prohibitive. Fortunately, technology can fill the gaps in a facility’s security system. But if your security can be easily defeated, you lose more than protection; you lose the secure image you promote to prospective tenants. You should have a clear understanding of your system’s vulnerabilities and options to avoid false claims and criminal incidents.
Traditional surveillance cameras are shoebox-sized units that rest atop a mounting arm. These cameras are the easiest security measure to defeat. The shape of their housing makes their location and view obvious, making it easy to stay out of their sight. A thief needs one good swat with a stick to forcibly redirect a camera toward a wall and render the system useless.
Over the last few years, we’ve witnessed a return to the Old West as criminal entrepreneurs lasso and pull facilities’ cameras for quick resale income. J and U-shaped camera brackets have made it easy for even the clumsiest thief to secure his rope on the first try. Eliminate this offense by choosing flush-mounted wall domes that do not provide grab points. Dome cameras are economical and include a coating to disguise their direction of view. A minor drawback is the potential for glare when the sun approaches the dome camera’s field of view.
Critical camera wires should always be protected. High-resolution surveillance means nothing when the video signal can be defeated using a pocket knife. You can either bring conduit to the camera or mount the cameras 20 feet high, well beyond the reach of someone with an 8-foot ladder or standing on top of a car.
Unfortunately, all video-surveillance systems can be defeated with a $2 party mask. The police can’t do much to find an unidentifiable suspect. This is why you need to keep the bad guys off your site in the first place. The primary line of defense is a mechanical gate operated by an electronic access control.
Access-control points are commonly called access keypads, even when a numeric keypad is absent. Unless you rely on face-to-face tenant verification, these are the true guardians of your facility. You need security sentinels that stand up to time, weather and abuse.
Access keypads are only as secure as the housing that surrounds them. Twenty pounds of industrial steel is useless if the keypad cover is attached with nothing more than a few screws. Even the application of security screws only requires a thief to spend a few dollars on a specialty screwdriver from the local hardware store. Once the keypad housing has been opened, so has your facility; and the keypad itself is likely to be vandalized. Your security vendor should offer a locking enclosure, preferably one that uses an uncommon barrel or dimple key.
Most access-control systems rely on each tenant having a unique, numeric gate-access code. The tenant enters his personal code each time he seeks access to your facility. Some of your tenants are business owners, and several of their employees may share their access code. Any one of those employees could use the code after they have been fired from the business or share it with an unscrupulous friend. Your tenant may not learn of the unauthorized code use until several days or weeks later. To stop this problem, you need better controls.
Fingerprint identification has been around for a hundred years. Since fingerprints can be easily marred with dirt or scratches, experts recommend all five fingers be matched to verify a person’s identity. However, biometric access keypads can only read one finger. If a thief “lifts” a tenant’s fingerprint from the keypad housing or a door knob, he may be able to assume the tenant’s identity. Furthermore, fingerprint readers can become confused when it rains, because wet fingers are hard to scan. In the future, biometric keypads may become more practical, perhaps in the form of iris scanners.
A more pragmatic access technology to consider is a proximity card-reader. Proximity keypads work in all weather and a tenant never touches the reader. He simply waves his access card or keychain tag near the receiver. “Active” proximity cards work from several feet away, so the tenant may not even need to roll down his car window. However, this convenience is expensive, as active cards cost about $10 a piece.
A fantastic balance between proven security and system cost is the use of magnetic card-access codes. These are inexpensive to implement and difficult to clone. Tenants can use items already in their wallet or purse as a gate “code,” such as a driver’s license, club-membership card, credit card, or just about any card that has a magnetic stripe. Furthermore, most magnetic access keypads support pay-at-the-gate. This adds a convenient method to collect delinquent rents.
While keypads control who is allowed access to your facility, adding an alarm sensor to each tenant’s storage door goes straight to the problem by protecting unit contents. Since a tenant’s individual unit alarms are only disarmed when entry is granted through the accesskeypad system, someone who manages to sneak onto the premises will have to otherwise disable the warning system.
Because each storage door is individually armed, wires must connect to every unit. Not only must these wires be protected from vandals, they must be saved from legitimate tenants who carelessly use exposed wiring as a clothes line as well as chew-happy rodents. If you live in a lightning-prone area, storms can create voltage differentials across door-alarm wiring and damage the electronics that monitor the doors. Protecting against all these hazards, or dealing with their aftermath, will dramatically increase the cost of a wired security system.
To overcome wiring issues, most major security vendors offer a wireless alternative. Being wireless, their sensors must be located on the exterior of each storage door. This is a major advantage, as it provides a visual crime deterrent, and unit access is not required for installation or servicing. Unfortunately, it also means the sensor itself may be vulnerable to attack.
Each wireless sensor has a tiny computer and transmitter within a protective shell. The shell is often made of plastic so the internal radio transmitter can communicate with the security controller, usually in the manager’s office. These systems can be easily destroyed with a cigarette lighter or common nail-polish remover. Systems with nylon housings will have greater protection and longevity.
With a wireless door-alarm sensor, the housing is mounted to the door frame using screws. To prevent vandalism, the housing cover should latch over the mounting screws, thereby preventing anyone from attempting wall removal. Be wary of systems that still use the old boxy housings with exposed screws. To be truly secured from tampering, the sensor needs a case-open and wall-removal detection switch.
All door-alarm systems can activate sirens and tie into your phone system so the outside world is alerted to the intrusion. Sirens should be mounted beyond reach, preferably in bell boxes or cages. Your phone lines should be protected so they cannot be easily cut from outside your building. Phone companies normally drop lines at the highest point of your perimeter wall.
Door-alarm systems generally allow for the inclusion of comprehensive office security and perimeter beams inside your fencing. These become additional zones that are armed and disarmed according to their own access keypad codes and special conditions.
You can also add controls so your lighting system responds appropriately, highlighting every nook and cranny. Your exterior lighting should be safe in protective housings to prevent breakage. Metal lighting cages present a good, inexpensive solution.
Your camera-recording system should have Internet access for off-site monitoring. You may also want to consider hiring an armed response service. It can access your surveillance cameras and determine if an alarm event is a real emergency or just a loose door-alarm wire.
Does your facility have an automated attendant kiosk? These kiosks provide 24/7 customer service like a bank ATM. They are usually placed in a well-lit location outside of a facility’s access-control gate. Although a kiosk is monitored by lights and video surveillance, it still needs to be well-protected from direct attack. This is especially true if it accepts cash payments. For the greatest protection, the kiosk should be mounted into an exterior wall.
Look at your site as a thief would, and protect it accordingly. Exterior doors should be made of steel. Large access panels should be protected by locking bars. Trees should be kept far from perimeter fencing to prevent them from being used as ladders. Your entire electronic security system should be protected from failure with an uninterruptible power supply.
The end result is a complete security system that works in concert. Access codes are automatically assigned by the kiosk or management software. Individual door alarms trigger sirens and/or activate lights whenever unauthorized unit activity occurs. Video surveillance begins hyper-recording when the alarm system triggers. As all the elements of your security system work together seamlessly, you gain a barrier against crime and a rapid response should it occur.
Doug Carner is a former member of Self Storage Association’s Westernregion board of directors. He is also the vice president of QuikStor Security & Software, a California-based company specializing in access control, management software, digital video surveillance, kiosk and corporate products for the self-storage industry. For more information, call 800.321.1987; e-mail email@example.com; visit www.quikstor.com.