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Published by PPM Locksmiths in Burglary Prevention • 30/09/2013 15:10:45

There is still a huge gulf of difference in the nature of crime on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Over the past few years, storylines for a number of films and TV programmes originating in the United States have made use of a ‘panic room’ – an impenetrable space within a house where the occupants can protect themselves from armed intruders, for several days if necessary.

More than two centuries ago, the founding fathers of America wrote a constitution and a bill of rights that guaranteed their freedoms in law. For a fledgling nation that faced a distinct possibility of invasion by armed attackers, most notably the British Empire from which it had declared its independence, it was essential that they could raise a military force at very short notice to repel any attack. In 1791, the right to bear arms was adopted as the second amendment to the constitution, supporting the possession of guns for the purpose of self defence. However, in modern times, confusion has arisen over whether self defence originally meant national self defence against enemy forces, individual self defence against outlaws and hostile natives, or for both purposes in a newly-created nation with patchy law enforcement and threats to its citizens from various quarters.

Despite the fact that the United States now has organised armed forces to defend itself, and organised law enforcement to police itself, Americans have never relinquished the right to own a gun – and many of them even view it as a patriotic duty. However, not all gun owners are law-abiding citizens, so as a result, the forces of law and order – the police, the F.B.I., the A.T.F. (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), and even the U.S. Coastguard – have to carry guns to do their jobs, and many law-abiding citizens, acting within their rights guaranteed by the second amendment, feel compelled to have a gun as self defence against others who carry guns.
If I were to try and pinpoint one significant difference between thieves in the United States and the United Kingdom it is that criminals here are much less likely to carry a gun, and therefore much less likely to confront their victims. So, in the USA, locksmiths and security professionals are concerned with the protection of the person as much as the protection of property. You can’t open a safe with a gun, but you can force the safe’s owner to open it at gunpoint. On the whole, British locksmiths are almost exclusively concerned with the protection of property.

In Britain, many managed apartments now have a Concierge, who will act as a receptionist, security guard, caretaker and general factotum. In the last few years, a few gated communities have appeared, with controlled access to a closed neighbourhood monitored by surveillance cameras, with each residence having a telephone hotline to a control centre.

Such security arrangements only apply to a small minority of the British public, and most of us are still responsible for our own property protection and physical safety, with an unarmed police force for support. While violent crime exists, it is still extremely rare, and many people go through their entire lives without being physically threatened or attacked for their belongings.

Rather than being confronted by an armed thief, most thefts of property in Britain take place surreptitiously – shoplifters, sneak thieves taking bags from changing rooms, and opportunist burglars waiting for a couple to leave for work before forcing the lock on the back door.

In the USA, a country where there are more guns than people, an armed intruder can compel his victims to open a safe and hand over the contents. Knowing that someone breaking into the house may be prepared to shoot you to steal your possessions makes a panic room a very sensible bolt-hole in such dangerous circumstances. So, in America, extreme security measures to protect the person are much more the norm than in Britain, and although the average American family may live in a house not unlike ours, they are much more likely to have a gun. Also, America homes do not have uPVC doors – most are still wooden doors or, for greater security in high-density urban areas, steel doors and frames, operated and secured by cylinder locks, as mortice locks are not favoured.

American thieves tend to be more confrontational than British thieves. In a country that is nearly 3000 miles from East to West mainland coasts, and has a population of more than 300 million, a fugitive who is not quickly apprehended can disappear and evade capture for years. In Britain, with a population density approximately eight times higher than the United States, there are fewer places to go, and for a thief who has been seen, and possibly photographed and identified by surveillance cameras, there are fewer hiding places. So, in Britain, thieves are more likely to escape justice by avoiding being seen, and avoiding confrontation to remain anonymous.

As I pointed out earlier, British locksmiths are more concerned with the protection of property. There has been a lot of debate in recent years about where money is best spent – on locks, or alarms. My answer to this is simple – you can keep a burglar out with the proper locks, but you can’t keep a burglar out without such locks, whether or not you have an alarm system as backup.

The first electric alarm system was patented on 21st June 1853 by Augustus Russell Pope, an American inventor from Boston, Massachusetts. In 1857, a businessman called Edwin Holmes bought the rights to Pope’s idea, and started a very effective marketing strategy by focussing on high-profile jewellers such as the world famous Tiffany’s of New York, and advertising their patronage in newspaper campaigns. During the late 19th century, alarms were installed in most banks and large businesses across America, usually working in tandem with the new telephone wires being laid in all the major cities. Decades later, after World War 2, alarm systems became more affordable for the domestic market in America, and their use became more popular with affluent homeowners.

At this point, we can emphasise the most significant difference between thieves in the United States and in the United Kingdom. American burglars are more likely to confront their victims, and more likely to set off prepared to do so by carrying a gun. If they break into a house, they are less concerned with being discovered, so they are more likely to break glass to gain entry, or force the door lock, without worrying about waking the occupants. In these circumstances, an alarm system being triggered may be the only thing to prevent them doing exactly what they want, and taking anything they want, and the only thing that forces them to make their escape. For this reason alone, an alarm system is an important element making up the security measures in an American home. In a culture where personal safety may be threatened almost as much as property, an alarm would be an appropriate addition to home security.

British burglars, on the other hand, are faced with a different set of circumstances. Even in the rare cases where they break glass, they will not get any further if the doors or windows have locks – if they can’t reach through to turn an unlocked handle the only way in would be to carefully remove all glass first to safely squeeze through the frame. Of course, if a key has been left in the lock then there may be a reason to break the glass and reach through. If there is any chance that the house is occupied, they cannot risk making a noise, so they are more likely to avoid breaking glass. They may try to force a door lock, but any decent deadlock will hold out against a force attack. Only the most basic locks can be picked, so a decent modern lock will keep them out.

It’s a myth that British burglars creep around at night with masks, striped tops and a bag marked ‘swag’, and in fact, most break-ins target empty houses during the daytime, when the occupants are out at work or shopping. If a burglar gets in, he will aim to be away as quickly as possible, not only because he doesn’t want to be caught, but also because he doesn’t want to be spotted and possibly identified. He knows it’s very unlikely he’ll be caught red-handed, but much more likely that, if he takes too long, someone will see him and possibly be able to offer evidence to identify him. The burglar will allow himself no more than a minute or so in the house to grab cash or something easily offloaded for cash, and then he’ll make his escape.

So, the presence of an alarm, which may take 30 seconds or longer to trigger, will make absolutely no difference to the outcome. To an opportunist thief who has burgled before it has no deterrent value whatsoever because he will be confident that nobody will respond immediately. From the moment it goes off, he knows he still has a minute or two to spare – plenty of time to pick up any car keys, cash or valuables lying about, and grab a few items – laptops, games consoles, cameras - he can sell in a pub on the other side of town or to a man he knows who does boot sales. If the alarm system has an auto-dial facility to alert a control centre, they still take time to respond. Even when it starts making a horrible noise, it could take several minutes before a curious neighbour decides to investigate where the noise is coming from, (and a lot longer if the system is prone to false alerts), by which time, the burglar is halfway home with his loot.
The average burglar has no special skills, and will look for easy targets – houses that are poorly secured. There are millions to choose from, and the presence of a burglar alarm has very little bearing on his choice of target – it is the type of lock that determines whether he breaks in or moves elsewhere. Any homeowner feeling smug that a thief has not targeted his house may imagine that the security measures are good. That is not necessarily the case – it’s often simply a matter of chance.
There are about 20 million uPVC doors in Britain, and only a tiny fraction of these will last more than 60 seconds against a force attack by an unskilled thief who knows one simple trick.

When a flock of starlings, or a shoal of sardines are under attack by a predator, they crowd together – nature has led them to evolve to protect themselves individually by melting into a crowd with others of their kind. It’s less likely that they will be targeted if they surround themselves with alternative targets. In a sense, uPVC doors are similar, as it is only the sheer weight of numbers that determines who gets burgled and who remains untouched, but the presence of an alarm system makes little difference to an opportunist thief.
Essentially, burglar alarms are an American response to an American problem. In Britain, we face a different set of circumstances, but our perception of property crime is predominantly based on American films and TV programmes, rather than the problems that we face here in Britain. Where burglar alarms become useful is for commercial premises in non-residential areas – shopping precincts, industrial estates, retail parks, factory units, workshops, back street garages and commercial areas where the triggering of an alarm may limit the time that a well-equipped robber has to break into a safe. These thieves are highly unlikely to target domestic properties because, from their point of view, the risk outweighs the rewards.
While home alarm systems became popular in the United States from the 1950’s on, they were not a consideration for most British homes until after the development of motion sensors. The first motion sensors used ultrasound principles similar to radar, and then in the 1980’s these were superseded by passive infrared motion sensors (PIRs), which made alarm systems more affordable.
However, right from the early days thirty years ago, when the component parts were still rather unreliable, to more recent times when alarms are produced in kit form for the DIY enthusiast, it has been very debatable whether they actually represent value for money. For the money that most people will spend on a domestic alarm system, it is possible to buy decent locks that will stop all but a team of professional robbers with a lot of equipment and the time to use it, and this type of criminal will not be interested in domestic break-ins. The small-time opportunist - single sneak thief with a couple of worn screwdrivers in his pocket - will get nowhere, give up and go away.
Whenever I hear a domestic alarm sounding somewhere in the distance, it tells me that someone has spent money unwisely, because in all likelihood it will be a false alarm, but if a thief has gained entry, ultimately it’s because their locks failed to do what they were supposed to do. As the possession of an alarm system has little bearing on whether you will be the target of a burglary, the noise it makes when it goes off should serve as a wake-up call – your security has failed! Buying and maintaining an alarm system seems to be a very expensive way of testing whether your locks need to be upgraded – asking a locksmith to check your security is much more effective.
There is not a house in Britain that cannot be made very secure by fitting the right locks in the right places, and at a price that is considerably more cost-effective than an alarm system. Having a device that makes a noise to try and scare away an intruder is a bit like a hiring a nightclub bouncer who stands absolutely still and screams at the first sign of trouble, but does nothing to intervene.
My advice to anyone with a limited budget aiming to increase their security is to keep the villains out in the first place with good physical security – don’t spend your money if it will still let them in and leave you entirely reliant on a device that makes a noise until help arrives. Of course, if the alarm is in the habit of going off on its own occasionally, and the neighbours have learnt not to pay any attention, then help may not arrive at all. In a matter of minutes, you will have lost some of your belongings, the culprit will have escaped, and it’s already much too late to do anything. You might ask yourself when was the last time you reported or investigated a burglar alarm going off?
Don’t be influenced by what you see in films and on TV. The golden rule for burglar alarms in Britain is: only fit an alarm to properties that are already secure. Most domestic burglar alarms are fitted in place of effective security and, as such, are a complete waste of money. If you’re worried that your security measures are not good enough, fitting an alarm will only serve to confirm that doubt, it won’t improve inadequate security. Improve your security by improving your locks.

PPM Locksmiths Ltd 7 Dominions Arcade Queen Street Cardiff - Phone 029-20231717