Master-Keyed Facilities

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Mention the phrase “master-keying” to many self-storage operators, and they become apprehensive. Many wonder if the practice leaves them open to legal liability. Though we’ve all heard stories about possible ramifications of using a master-key system, and people feel uncertain about its benefits, it deserves consideration.

Some facilities are well-sold on its advantages. In addition to the pressure of increasingly competitive markets, a desire for an added level of security has encouraged some operators to explore master-key options. Over time, more will become open to the possibilities. Think back to a few years ago, when many in the storage industry were skeptical about using tubular-lock systems because of potential problems with overlocks. They were hesitant to use the locks at first, but today these systems are ever more common.

How it Works

In a true master-keyed system, one “master” key has the ability to unlock all of the locks at a site. This should not be confused with a flat unrestricted key. While there are some similarities, they are completely different, especially when it comes to the way their mechanisms work. The rotating disc locks employed by the master-keyed system are virtually pick proof, while the locks in a flat-key system feature springs and pins that make them vulnerable.

In addition, the master key of a master-keyed system is restricted and cannot be copied by a locksmith. Quality systems are hand-assembled, not mass produced. Each lock is registered and coded by the manufacturer for added protection.

Motivations Behind the Master Key

Self-storage security has changed drastically over the years. Some advancement has been the result of better technology. In other cases, it came in response to increased competition and the need to provide more and better options than the facility up the street. Even the permitting process in some areas has forced our hand. For example, some cities require the fire department to have 24-hour access to a storage facility and its units in case there is a fire. This can only be accomplished with a master-keyed system.

Issues of homeland security have also shed more positive light on master-key use. As storage facilities are built in more densely populated areas, the activities that occur behind their doors are of greater concern to local officials and residents. The anxiety is not unfounded. For example, consider the Oklahoma City bombing executed by Timothy McVeigh and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Both incidents were tied to a van and its explosive contents, which were stored—you guessed it—at a self-storage facility. Recently, law-enforcement officers found a half-ton of ammonia-nitrate fertilizer in a London storage unit.

Could these incidents have been avoided with use of a master-keyed system? It’s difficult to say. Obviously, the staff of those facilities would have to be vigilant enough to notice suspicious behavior on behalf of tenants and questionable goods coming to and from the site. There would have to be sufficient evidence to support use of the master key. Simply having a master-keyed system in place does not guarantee greater security—it has to be used intelligently.

The Right Way

Though master-keying offers many security advantages, there is a right and wrong way to use it. Owners of apartment complexes keep keys to their tenants’ units without legal difficulty—but they follow the necessary guidelines. The same must hold true in self-storage for the system to work.

If you choose to employ a master-keyed system, you will need to include specific provisions regarding its use in your lease agreement. These clauses should be straightforward so tenants understand their right to privacy and your right to enter a unit under strictly defined circumstances. Some simple language added to your contract will keep you out of hot water, but consult your legal counsel to make sure the text is sound. No judgments have ever been awarded in a court of law that found the owner of a master-keyed facility liable for exercising his rights.

The expectations for site security—from tenants, local communities and the federal government—are higher than ever before. And this is not likely to change. Savvy storage operators also recognize that security doesn’t just protect valuables; it serves as an excellent marketing tool.

With that in mind, consider a master-keyed system. When used correctly, it will protect you in extraordinary events such as fire and suspected acts of terrorism. Plus, it will help you deter criminals from renting with you every day—just by mentioning it in your sales presentation. Use a master-keyed system to improve your reputation for security and increase your bottom line.

Morgan Lambert is a regional 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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