Swift Emergency Response System Draws Questions About Public Safety From Ship Bottom Officials

By Gina G. Scala | Oct 30, 2019
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Ship Bottom — Protect, secure, safety – any of these words can be used to define a rapid response access system the Ship Bottom Borough Council was asked to greenlight for the volunteer fire company last month. It did, after an extensive discussion about how the system works and who is ultimately responsible for access to a master key that would unlock individual boxes on any participating home or business in the borough.

A Knox Box is designed for use by fire companies, emergency medical services and police in an emergency situation to gain immediate entry upon arrival to a property in which the owner voluntarily installs the access system. There are several different variations of the safe-like, wall-mounted box where owners leave a duplicate key to their home or business. A similar box, in the system that the Ship Bottom Volunteer Fire Co. is looking to use, would be mounted in the fire truck. It holds a master key that opens every individual box on participating properties.

Some officials were initially reluctant to give the program a thumbs-up due to apprehension over how many firefighters would have access to the Knox Box and if it could be hacked electronically or the master key duplicated. Douglas White, president of the fire company, said the master key is accessible only by a pass code. In the case of the Ship Bottom firefighters, the pass code is a portion of their individual Social Security number because that’s the preferred method of the fire company, he said.

“It’s officers only,” White explained of who could ultimately unlock the box in the fire truck, take the master key out and access the Knox Box on a home or business.

Additionally, the system maintains an electronic trail of who accesses the boxes and when, where, and for how long the key was extricated, he said.

“There is greater security and accountability,” White said, noting the master key cannot be duplicated. “We would never share our pass code with anyone else. It doesn’t go to anyone; it’s solely the responsibility of the fire company.”

Kathleen Flanagan, borough coordinator and chief financial officer, wanted to know what would happen if an officer is suspended, or leaves the fire company, or no longer serves as an officer. If any of those situations arise, according to White, access to the master key would be denied. The system has the ability to delete personal access codes and reprogram with new access codes whenever there is a personnel change, he said.

“The downside (of not having it) is that we break windows and doors,” he said during an impromptu presentation at the council’s Oct. 22 caucus meeting in which the Knox Box was the first of four items on the agenda.

For business and home owners interested in participating in the program, Ship Bottom has a form that already has all of their relevant information, White said. All an individual has to do is pick it up, fill out the rest and send it to the company.

The company would then send the product directly to the resident or business owner for installation. Knox Boxes can be installed “by a trusted maintenance professional, handyman, or contractor,” according to the Knox Company website.

“Locked doors and secured entry points can delay emergency response. Enable first responder rapid access by installing a secure UL listed Knox Box that houses entry keys and access cards,” the website reads in part. “Built Knox-Rugged to resist physical attack, vandalism, and extreme weather conditions.”

The next step is for the council to introduce an ordinance permitting the program, according to Mayor William Huelsenbeck. It’s expected the first reading of that ordinance will be heard at the council’s next meeting, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 26, at borough hall.

— Gina G. Scala


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