Securing our SECOND HOME

CarolinaFireJournal - By Joey Mares
By Joey Mares
04/24/2015 -

As I’m sitting here writing this article most of you are preparing or have completed next year’s budget. Most budgets will consist of monthly expenses, personnel and capital purchases, but this is also the time to improve on the things we already have such as equipment or stations. For me personally there is always one item that comes up numerous times during budget planning and that is security for the fire house. No, I’m not talking about security systems or cameras but physical security. Shouldn’t the fire station be secured as good if not better than our own homes; I mean it is our second home right?


Physical security is what eases our minds into knowing that someone is unable to make entry without having valid access. Physical security is why we install dead bolts on our homes and lock our car doors. All of this brings up the topic of access control and what it’s capable of doing. Access control gives you the ability to secure your fire station or rescue squad while at the same time control personnel coming in which door, at what time and on what day. These systems are not all about denying your personnel access but about accountability.

Fire departments now operate in the world of very expensive equipment such as thermal cameras, MDTs, rescue saws, SCBAs and that’s just to name a few. Not to mention those departments that operate ALS medical services that need to account for ALS equipment, narcotics and patient information. If you are accustomed to hearing the term access control — your first mental picture will be someone sliding a credit card like card through a reader on the wall and walking in the door. That picture does depict a realistic scenario and we will focus more on the electronic version of access control but that is not the only way to “control access.”

Mechanical Access

The most budget friendly form of access control is the standard lock and key. In most cases people think of an electronic lock when talking access control. The term access control refers to the practice of restricting entrance to a property, a building, or a room to authorized persons and is not limited to electronic means only. There are two ways to secure your facility using lock and key. The first and most economical way is to re-key your existing locks and implement a master key system. The only hold back you would encounter while trying to do this would be if you have a mixture of different keyways in your building.

For a building to implement a master key system the “grand” master key would need to work every lock within the system or it would somewhat defeat the purpose. A good way to see if all of your buildings locks are on one keyway is to take your main key that gives you access into the building and go to every lock that has a keyway and see if the key will slide in. Remember the key does not have to work, just slide in the lock. If one key will slide into every keyway you are ready for the design of your key system and do not worry if you have a few mixed keyways in your building since it may be as simple as replacing the cylinder in the lock with the correct keyway and not replacing the entire lock.

So how can implementing a master key system provide access control? Master key systems gives the chief or whomever the ability to have total access to all doors using one key but provide other personnel a key that only allows entry into exterior doors. The training officer can have a key separate from the exterior door keys that allow access into their designated area but not into the captain’s office who has his or her own key as well. Equipment rooms can also be keyed to separate keys to ensure limited access to turnout gear and pagers all while placing accountability on those who carry keys.

When creating a master key system keep the system as simple as possible while accomplishing your security goal. This will keep the system running smoothly; provide easier maintenance and better record keeping of the keys. As is the case with most things there are negatives to using standard lock and key methods. Keys are easily passed around, duplicates made, no good accountability of who is actually using the key and lost keys just to name a few. Also remember if you need to restrict entry based on days or times then mechanical locks may not be the best option. The only other option you have to lighten the list of negatives is to install a key restricted keyway. Restricted keyways are available through a locksmith and will provide everything the standard lock and key does with the exception of two things; a side bar in the lock to help prevent being picked open using locksmith tools and the duplication of keys. With a key restricted keyway most lock shops will require a name or list of names that are authorized to have duplicates made of the building they have sold the system to. In most cases these keys are only available through authorized shops and are not available at your local hardware or box store. Along with the cylinders themselves the keys can be quite a bit more money than a standard key depending on the brand.

Push Button Access

So now you’re thinking, the station should be secured but I don’t want to have to worry about keys. The next best option is the push button lock. Push button locks can simply fall into two different categories; electronic or mechanical. Mechanical push button locks have been around for years on fire and EMS stations and are still used today by many. Just about everyone in the fire service has seen the Simplex 1000 (Figure 2-1). The Simplex lock is all mechanical which means no dead batteries; parts are readily available and easily replaceable which explains why they last so long. They are also very simple to use and easy to change the combination. Another good feature about this lock is if you’re in a hurry and you enter the wrong combo, you can simply turn the knob or lever one time and the lock would reset. Contrary to electronic locks you can do this many times without forcing the lock into a lock down mode.

Electronic locks are made so that if someone is tampering with the keypad and trying to make an unauthorized entry the lock will shut down for a preset amount of time and not allow anyone entry even with a valid pin. The major down side to the Simplex lock is everyone shares one code that can easily be passed around to non-members; there is absolutely no accountability as to who is using the code and every time the code is changed everyone in the department has to be contacted and issued the new code.

I mentioned earlier push button locks could be mechanical or electronic. Electronic keypads (Picture 2-2) can fill in some of the security gaps found with the mechanical locks. Electronic keypads can be used with one pin number but typically can hold hundreds of different codes so that each member or employee can use his or her own unique code. The added benefits to everyone having their own code is that if you have multiple locks on a building you can assign codes to only the doors you want them to have access to. In the event someone leaves the department you can delete his or her code and deny entry without having to contact all other members and give them the new code. The downside to the electronic keypads are batteries can fail if not changed routinely, electronics can quit without any prior problems and like the mechanical locks, pin numbers can be easily passed around to non-members.

Software Driven Access


With everything around us going electronic and controlled by computers; locks are no exception. Software driven access gives you full control of your facilities doors at your fingertips. These systems give you the ability to manage doors using a PC or laptop with control of who uses what doors at what times of the day and saves an audit of use. In most cases fire houses using these systems allow access 24/7 with a valid credential on exterior doors. With schedule uncertainties it would prove to be a nightmare trying to set up time schedules for exterior doors.

Proximity cards — known as prox card for short — are normally the credential of choice but PIN can be used as well. Prox cards are favored simply because most people will not loan out their card knowing when used it will leave an audit trail with their name on it. Prox cards are the size of a credit card and use a small antenna built inside that powers up when presented to a card reader or lock (Picture 3-1) and sends a unique number back to the system for verification. If the card is verified the door unlocks and allows entry. Prox cards can also be printed on and used for identification cards.

To visualize how software driven access works imagine a department that has a combination of firefighters, EMT-basics and paramedics. A firefighter’s credential may give him or her access to exterior doors only as compared to the EMT-B who has access to exterior doors and the EMS supply closet. To step it up a notch a paramedic could have access to the exterior doors; EMS supply and the narcotics room while still only having to carry one credential. This is an advantage to carrying a ring of keys that must be fumbled through until the correct key is found.

The anatomy of software driven access systems is actually quite simple. There are two different styles typically used; standalone and wired. Standalone locks look just like a standard electronic push button lock with the exception it has the ability to be programmed with a laptop or hand held programmer. In most cases either device would use an infrared cable or would plug directly into the lock for programming. Standalone systems provide the ability to perform everything we have talked about with the biggest downside being someone must physically go to each lock to program, which can be time consuming if there are multiple locks, or time is an issue. These locks are battery operated and do not require wires to be pulled over a building which can cut down on the cost of installation.


One popular question about these locks is about the life expectancy of the batteries. Most of the lock manufacturers advertise two or three years using a four pack of “AA” batteries as long as name brands such as Duracell or Energizer are used. Wired systems require that low voltage wire be pulled from each door back to a main data closet or mechanical room where power and communication can be provided. Wired systems use a 12 or 24v DC power supply to power up each door controller which is where the brains of each door lays. A card reader mounted at the door would be wired to the controller along with the electric strike that unlocks when a valid credential is presented (Picture 3-3). Most modern software driven access systems are made to run on a network but do not require an elaborate setup and can be set up using a standard network switch from your local computer store. Wired systems allow the administrator to make all changes and updates from their computer without ever leaving the office and is available on demand. Wired systems can be the most costly but can be installed one door at the time as the budget allows. They also usually prove to be the most user-friendly to manage.


As mentioned earlier this is not to give the feeling of a prison but provide accountability for equipment and supplies while also providing a safe and secure work environment. There are downsides and flaws with any security setup but it is our job to not only protect our community but also protect ourselves. The chief of a local department who has been with the same department for over 30 years told me about the day he walked into the station and saw someone tossing ice into a large fishing cooler. He walks over to the gentlemen and politely asks, “hey how are you doing, and who are you?” And the guy looks back at him and just says “who are you?” It was at that time he thought maybe he should do something different with his locks. As with all purchases do your research and make sure the product fits your needs and requirements.

Joey Mares has been a career firefighter with the City of New Bern Fire-Rescue for the last 10 years and currently holds the position of fire engineer. Mares has a Degree in Fire Protection Technology, is a certified North Carolina Fire Instructor, a member of the North Carolina Task Force-10 team and is also a licensed North Carolina locksmith. If you have any questions, contact him at [email protected].
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