How Safe is Your Safe (Part 2)
By RIC BLUM
Just how safe is your safe? In the Spring 2012 issue of Cheklist, we took a look at state-of-the-art safes vs. outdated ones, placement of safes, the negative sides of modern technology, and how burglars may gain access to your safe. We also examined safecracking, and detailed non-destructive methods of breaking open a safe.
In this issue, we pick up with the more destructive ways criminals may attack your safe.
Destructive Safecracking Methods
For years, drilling was the most popular method of destructive safe attack. In drilling, a single hole or multiple holes are drilled into the safe’s locking mechanism or face in order to destroy the locking bolt or lock cylinder which would then allow the handle to be turned retracting the bolts.
The first safes were made from metal. The first safecrackers simply drilled them using a drill bit made of a harder metal.
Safe makers then started using really hard metal — a “hardplate.” Eventually, manufacturers settled on cobalt plating, particularly right around the dial and the mechanisms that stop the lock bolt from moving. So the safecrackers started using diamond-tipped drill bits that will eventually drill through cobalt, although the drill motor may burn out first.
In response, the safe makers started using tricks like this: They make a hardplate of a cobalt-vanadium alloy and sprinkle it with tungsten carbide chips, which can shatter the diamond-tipped drill bits.
It was a cat-and-mouse scenario.
Long gone are the old shoulder-brace drills. They’ve have been replaced by portable magnetic drills. You can be sure that the burglar will come with special tungsten-carbide, titanium or diamond drill bits to get through hardened steel or composite materials.
Nowadays safecrackers use only three types of drill bits:
1. High speed drill bits for just drilling metal
2. Carbide drill bits for drilling harden steel
3. Diamond core bits for drilling carbide chips embedded hardplate
So the safe makers started adding other layers of material besides the cobalt, like spongy stuff or angled soft-steel plates in concrete to tangle drill bits instead of stopping them cold.
They also came up with the concept of “relockers.” Typically, if you trigger the relocker, a new set of bolts spring into place.
The trigger mechanism in some cases is a glass panel which holds a relocking mechanism in place. If the hole is drilled in the wrong area, the glass panel will break, triggering the relockers. If the drill or any other impact tool strikes and breaks this glass panel, the burglar will never get the door open.
Relocking devices were first fitted to safes in the 1950s to prevent safe doors from being opened through the use of explosives. Originally, steel cables were routed around the inside of a safe’s door and connected to a lever that would release a second set of bolts that block the retraction of the main locking bolts in case of a forced breach. The cable was held in place by a piece of hardened glass. Any explosion would shatter the glass, causing the additional boltwork to be activated.
Changes in design led to using a larger plate of glass that covers the entire inside of the safe’s door, which can still be broken by explosives, but also by drilling or impact.
Now keep in mind, a true safecracker will know something about the safe that he is planning on attacking. He will know of the burglary countermeasures the manufacturer has put in place; about the relockers, reinforced areas around the lock itself and where the points of least resistance are located.
Manufactures publish drill-point diagrams for their safes and although highly protective of this information, it is available to locksmiths and has been known to be leaked. This could allow the safecracker to drill from a steep angle above the lock and then drill into it.
The objective here is to not destroy the wheel pack, but to be able to look inside it. Once the safecracker can see inside the wheel pack, he can watch the wheels spin as he turns the dial to line them up to open the door.
This is also where a borescope or other electronic viewing devices, like fiber optics, come into play. Fiber optics brought a tremendous advancement in the ability to manipulate combination locks from outside the safe.
Today, for example, a digital inspection camera is available at Harbor Freight for $80. It has a 38-in. long flexible shaft, a 2.4-in. color LCD display and two white LED lamps for low light viewing.
Again, to combat frontal drilling, the safe manufacturing industry now incorporates hardplate steel or composite hardplate steel (a casting of metal such as cobalt-vanadium with embedded tungsten-carbide chips designed to shatter the cutting tip of drill bits) in high security safes.
If relockers and hardplate are installed in the door of the safe, another drilling option would be the side of the safe. Side drilling is a method used to reach the bolt itself. Again, the safecracker would use a borescope or similar tool to view the bolt inside the lock and then use a long punch to push it out of the way or destroy it.
Safes may also be drilled from the rear. This method is often easier than an attack from the front, especially if the safe is not an X6 model (an X6 designation indicates all six walls
of the safe provide the same level of protection).
Impact is a method of attack where a safe may be dropped from sufficient height to cause enough damage to the exterior that the door may be pried open.
Other forms of impact would be to knock off the combination lock dial and then drive the spindle and wheel pack into the safe with a large punch. A default relocking mechanism on a modern safe may defeat this method.
In peeling, an axe and/or a hammer and chisel are used to breach the external layer of material of a safe and a large crowbar type tool is used to peel away the protective outer covering.
This was a very common method of breaching older safes with an outer layer of protective material.
Although this may be a time- and labor-intensive endeavor, remember, even a TRTL-60X6 safe is only rated for a 60-minute attack.
Prying is very similar to peeling. The same tools are used, but instead of peeling off the protective outer covering, this method involves tearing open the safe or prying off the door or sides.
This method is also very time- and labor-intensive, but may have better results than peeling.
Cutting is by far the most popular method for successful safe attacks by professional burglars. Cutting may include grinding, sawing or use of a cutting torch.
a. Cutting with hand tools
A common handheld electric saw or electric high-speed angle grinder fitted with a modern cutting blade or disc will inch its way through the hardest materials, including concrete.
These tools are readily available, easily transported and not too expensive. If you deal in tools at your pawnshop, you frequently see saws and grinders fitted with fiber or diamond cutting blades or discs that are being used to cut both concrete and metal. In my mind, these would be the ideal tool for a safe attack.
Also, using a disc cutter, unlike a torch, doesn’t require much skill.
Since we’re talking about cutting, rather than chopping with an axe, the burglars may just cut through the roof with a battery-operated saw. Roofs and roofing material are not as hard as a composite safe body.
Cut, not burn — one of the last things a burglar may want to do is set fire to the cash or melt the gold in a safe. Locked doors and a secure-looking building may cause the police to turn away. The fire department has its own attitude and usually the persuasiveness to show a door who’s boss.
b. Cutting with torches
All metals and composites burn at certain temperatures. Cutting with a torch of some kind is a very efficient method to access the contents of a safe.
Torch attacks, like many other cutting method attacks, are often performed on the side or back of the safe. This avoids the relocking mechanisms in the door. However, it is not uncommon to have a combination lock wheel pack cut out of a safe door.
Oxy-acetylene torches have been the torch of choice in the past. They can operate at temperatures up to 4,500°F, and are still the most used torch for gaining access to a safe.
But today a portable plasma cutter is often taking its place. While some models will work on 120 volts, there are also portable devices that will convert common 120 volts found in all businesses to 240 volts for use with heavier, more powerful, but still portable plasma torches.
Both these torches are capable of creating enough heat to burn through a large safe or vault. The downside is the amount of smoke and heat generated.
To combat torching, safe manufacturers often include a layer of high-strength concrete in between the inner and outer layers of the safe shell. So the reactive safecrackers had to move on to the next level as well: the thermic lance.
A thermic lance is typically a hollow fuel rod with a high-pressure oxygen source in the center used to burn through anything that gets in its way. However, they are very messy, loud, emit a lot of light and often burn up everything in a safe. There is also the possibility of burning down the entire building.
A thermic lance, thermal lance, oxygen lance or burning bar is a tool that burns iron in the presence of pressurized oxygen to create very high temperatures for cutting. It consists of a long iron tube packed with iron rods, sometimes mixed with aluminum or magnesium rods to increase the heat output. One end of the tube is placed in a holder and oxygen is fed through the tube.
The far end of the tube is pre-heated and lit by an oxy-acetylene torch. An intense stream of burning iron is produced at the lit end and can be used to cut rapidly through thick materials including steel and concrete.
The tube is consumed, so every few minutes the operator shuts off the oxygen, discards the remaining stub of a lance tube and starts using a new one.
Besides its ability to cut through just about any man-made or metal material, the thermic lance will also burn through, or melt, concrete.
And while a thermic lance requires a large amount of oxygen to operate, I remember reading a little while back where one was used to cut into a bank vault from an exterior wall in a parking garage over a weekend.
The thieves merely draped off the area of attack to look like a construction job was being performed in the garage itself (not too uncommon over a weekend) and then proceeded to cut into the vault.
The use of torches does, however, requires a skill level that can’t be learned on the job. Still, there are lots of employed and unemployed construction and demolition workers, trained military personnel, factory workers and a host of others who possess the necessary skills already.
One possible exception to the old TL-30 standard may be the Roland Pawn Safe. This system affords an additional level of protection against armed robbery through its built-in electronic time-delayed drawer system, which is enclosed in an additional steel shell inside the safe.
Even if breached by a cutting disc or a torch, access to its contents is limited to only a small area of the safe, resulting in minimal loss. This goes back to the “safe within a safe” concept.
Explosives are still an option for gaining access to a safe, but are rarely used today. Although this method may be very successful, it is not very discreet. Even if used to destroy a lock, bolt or hinge, the results would also likely activate any relocking mechanism. There is also the likelihood of alerting someone (by way of the explosion) and personal injury.
The burglar must also possess the knowledge that the safe’s contents will survive the forthcoming explosion.
The method of choice to blow a door off a safe is a “jam shot,” which gets its name from a highly explosive mixture of nitroglycerin [C3H5(NON2)3] (glycerin, nitric and sulfuric acids) that takes the form of a jelly-like substance. I’m not going into all the details of how to prepare and execute a jam shot, but it is not that difficult.
For a true professional with more connections in the explosives world, C-4, PETN or RDX may be the choice explosive. The advantage of these compounds is that they are more stable than nitroglycerin and come in a moldable, clay-like form that is ready to use.
The general rule for vault breaching is to never use the door. Always attempt to breach the walls, floor or ceiling. Security precautions are taken with walls, floors and ceilings, but not usually to the extent as with the vault door. Vault doors look big and mean. It is a psychological defense mechanism and works. People feel they are impenetrable.