I read an article yesterday in USA Today:  Locked electronic doors slowed police response in Virginia Beach mass shooting.  As most of you know by now, last week a public works employee entered the Virginia Beach municipal building where he had worked as an engineer for 15 years, killed 12 people, and wounded 4 others.  At this point, his motive is unknown.

One thing we do know is that during the police response there were several times when law enforcement officers were heard on the radio requesting keys, access cards, or breaching tools in order to reach the suspect as well as the victims.  The same locks that were intended to secure the building and limit access to intruders increased the response time of the emergency responders.

These difficulties underscore the importance of planning for authorized access to secured buildings and interior spaces.  Searching for the keys, credentials, or special tools needed for access can delay emergency responders, as it did in Virginia Beach.  We have seen the same effect in several school shootings where the doors were barricaded or chained and hindered law enforcement response (examples: Virginia Tech,  Platte Canyon High School, West Nickel Mines Amish Schoolhouse).

Does this mean that doors should not be lockable?  Of course it doesn’t!  Locked doors are a crucial part of the physical security of a building, and automatically unlocking doors during an emergency for law enforcement access is not feasible for all buildings, and may create other problems.

As with classroom security, the answer is to make the necessary keys and access control credentials readily available to first responders – typically in a key box (often called a Knox Box – a brand name), usually mounted near the main entrance of the building.  Some key boxes may also include a switch to unlock doors with electrified hardware rather than using the access control credentials for each individual door.

A key box is defined by the International Fire Code (IFC) as: A secure device with a lock operable only by a fire department master key, and containing building entry keys and other keys that may be required for access in an emergency.  The IFC does not specify which buildings are required to have key boxes, but authorizes the fire code official to require a key box to be installed where access is restricted because of secured openings or where immediate access is necessary for life-saving or fire-fighting purposes.  But how do fire code officials determine which buildings should have key boxes, when any building could be the location of a fire or other emergency?

The website for the city of Virginia Beach includes information regarding key boxes:

A Knox Box is a secure and mounted device that can hold keys, access cards, and full size binders of information for use by the Fire Department during afterhours emergency calls for service. Key boxes allow businesses to prevent or reduce damage to their structure by Fire Department personnel during calls for service and provide a means for Fire Department personnel to access secure areas quickly. Key boxes are only accessible by Fire Department personnel, not by police or other first responders. Knox box keys should be updated whenever any major building changes have occurred, if access controlled areas have been added, and if locks have been switched out on site.

Historically, keys and access control credentials in key boxes are used by firefighters for rapid access and so they don’t have to breach the door by force and cause unnecessary damage.  According to the Virginia Beach information, the key boxes are only accessible by the fire department, and not by the police department.  In many emergencies, both the police and fire department will be present, but in an active shooter incident it would likely be law enforcement officers who need to enter the building first.

Facility managers, along with the local fire and police departments, should consider how to allow rapid access to their buildings in an emergency, by making keys and access control credentials readily available to emergency responders.  For many facilities, concerns about security may impact the use of a key box, but there are ways to mitigate those issues – refer to this article from Silva Consultants.  There are videos, case studies, and additional information about key boxes available on the Knox website: knoxbox.com.

Photo: Knox Box

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