Knox Boxes to the Rescue: In Case of Emergency, Do Not Break Glass – 99% Invisible

Knox Boxes to the Rescue: In Case of Emergency, Do Not Break Glass – 99% Invisible

Amidst the clutter of infrastructural odds and ends in cities, it is easy to overlook this type of ubiquitous little box attached to the outside of large buildings. When disaster strikes, however, these urban safes can go from unnoticed to essential in an instant. And now that you know about them, you will start noticing them everywhere you look.

There are various types of Knox Boxes, but each shares a basic purpose: they allow emergency services personnel to enter buildings safely, quickly and easily in time-sensitive situations.

When emergency personnel respond to a call and arrive on site, they use a master key or code to unlock the box and access its contents (generally: a building-specific key). In the absence of such a system, firefighters and paramedics would have to wait to be let in or simply break into buildings, damaging property and risking personal injury. Seconds count in these situations, making safe and timely access essential. These correspondingly critical boxes can be found on all kinds of urban structures, including apartment buildings, office complexes, art museums and other civic institutions.

Why “Knox Box“? While other companies make rapid-entry systems, Knox is popular enough to be the household name in the industry (serving over 10,000 fire departments in the United States).

Some boxes work like small safes, providing access to a set of building keys. Others open up larger boxes with arrays of keys and other contents. Still others flip to reveal control panels with more complex functionality (e.g. allowing personnel to disable power or gas lines or turn off sprinkler systems in cases of false alarms).

Knox also produces non-box solutions, including padlocks. Such single-key approaches can provide more direct access to places like storage areas, industrial equipment yards and gated buildings.

From a security perspective, these may sound a bit like a Holy Grail for burglars. After all, Knox Boxes represent a single point of failure, creating a skeleton key system for unlocking almost any major commercial or residential structure in a city. Many users, however, put safeguards in place. Some building managers, for instance, tie their boxes to larger security alarm systems that will trigger when anyone accesses them. Since emergency services are presumably already on the scene, this alarm is at worst redundant but can prevents break-ins.

Some departments also employ tracking functionality that keeps tabs on the master keys. A code may be needed to gain access to the master key, in turn providing accountability for its usage.

For emergency responders, these safes eliminate unknowns and cut down on response time. Most Knox Boxes are (naturally) designed to be obvious and located in easily-accessible positions. Still, they are easy to overlook … unless you know what you are looking for.


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