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The importance of fire protection in safes

When most people think of safes, their first thought is often about protecting their valuables from theft. However, there’s another critical aspect of safeguarding your assets that should not be overlooked – fire protection. With decades of experience in the field of fireproof safes, Gunnebo Safe Storage & Chubb Safes have encountered several misconceptions about this essential feature. Let’s dispel some of these myths.

Safe in a fire

Misconception 1: All safes are fireproof, right?

Unfortunately, not all safes are equipped to withstand fires like they do burglaries. While burglary safes offer some protection due to the insulating materials within their walls, this protection is limited in terms of time and temperature resistance. Even safes with the same level of certified burglary protection can vary significantly in their fire resistance.

The effectiveness of fire suppression systems in your building can also be questionable. Gas or chemical suppression systems can displace debris, potentially destroying valuable data during a fire, while sprinkler systems can leave a soggy mess behind.

Fire safes act as silent insurance policies, especially since insurance companies often prioritise theft protection over fire resistance when setting criteria for securing valuables.

Misconception 2: Fire protection is outdated in the digital age

While the concept of the paperless office has been discussed for decades, the reality is that original documents are often still stored in physical form, necessitating fire protection. Moreover, as digital media storage becomes denser, businesses face increased vulnerability. Fireproof safes come with three distinct levels of maximum internal temperature protection: for paper (below 170°C), data media like CDs and DVDs (70°C), and data media with magnetic strips (50°C). If your safe is only designed to protect documents, a fire can destroy CDs or memory sticks inside.

Fire tolerance level

Misconception 3: Fire protection isn’t business critical

Losing information critical to your business, such as original contracts, invoices, stock records, or machinery programs, can be catastrophic. Many businesses never fully recover from a serious fire, resulting in lost orders, contracts, employee records, and, in some cases, going out of business entirely.

Insurance claims require proof of ownership for lost items, adding complexity to the recovery process. Without the deeds to your property, proving ownership can be nearly impossible.

Real-life examples highlight the need

Consider a Middle Eastern bank with a branch that burned down during a riot, causing the loss of loan agreements and property deeds for around 70,000 people, potentially costing hundreds of millions of dollars. In contrast, a Swedish bank faced a massive fire in 2008 but was back to full operation in just three days, thanks to fire-resistant safes.

Historical incidents of bank fires in South Africa. Here are a few notable examples:

  1. Standard Bank Building Fire, Johannesburg (2009): In October 2009, a massive fire broke out in the Standard Bank building located in the central business district of Johannesburg. The fire was so intense that it caused the collapse of a portion of the building. While the primary focus was on extinguishing the fire and ensuring the safety of people in the vicinity, it also resulted in significant damage to the bank’s property and records.
  2. Nedbank Building Fire, Cape Town (1999): In December 1999, a fire broke out in the Nedbank Building in Cape Town’s city center. The fire caused substantial damage to the building and disrupted banking operations in the area. It took considerable efforts to contain and extinguish the fire.
  3. Standard Bank Safe Heist, Pietermaritzburg (2019): Although not a fire incident, this incident involved a daring heist at a Standard Bank branch in Pietermaritzburg in July 2019. Thieves managed to gain access to the bank’s strongroom, where they used explosives to blow open the safe’s door. While the thieves did not start a fire, the incident highlighted the importance of bank security and safe storage.
  4. Bank of Lisbon Building Fire, Johannesburg (2018): While not a bank, this incident is relevant as it involved a government building that housed several departments, including a bank branch. In September 2018, a fire broke out in the Bank of Lisbon Building in Johannesburg. Tragically, three firefighters lost their lives while battling the blaze, and the building was extensively damaged. This incident raised concerns about fire safety regulations in public buildings.

These incidents emphasize the importance of fire safety and disaster preparedness for financial institutions and businesses in South Africa. Fire safety measures, including fire-resistant safes and robust disaster recovery plans, are critical to safeguarding valuable assets and records in the event of a fire.

How do fire safes work?

Rather than asbestos, modern fire safes use foamed, aerated, gypsum-based concrete with up to 80% water content. This concrete absorbs heat through an endothermic reaction, which releases water as steam, keeping the temperature within the safe at acceptable levels. Fire safes are designed to release built-up pressure safely.

Data safes have a composite barrier that includes an outer layer of foam concrete, insulation like special polyurethane foam, and a layer of “phase change” material inside, which helps maintain lower temperatures.

Certifications and Testing

To ensure the effectiveness of a fire safe, look for certifications such as the European standard EN 1047-1 and the American UL Standard 72. These safes undergo rigorous testing, including exposure to high temperatures, impact testing, and reheating to simulate falling through multiple floors. The interior temperature must remain below 170°C for documents and below 50°C for digital media.

Conclusion: The core of security

Fire protection is at the heart of overall security. While you may have other security measures in place to prevent disasters, when the worst happens, you’ll rely on your fire safe. It’s a one-time investment, a capital safeguard for your company, ensuring you’re prepared for the “what if” scenarios that can impact your business. A fire safe is not just an asset; it’s peace of mind.

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Gunnebo Safe Storage

Unit 7, Gosforth Business Park, Cnr. Gosforth Park Road and Silverstone Street, Gosforth Park,
South Africa

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