Each September, Northfield, Minn., celebrates the foiling of the legendary James-Younger gang’s 1876 raid on the First National Bank. Citizens of Northfield banded together to stand up to and repel the assault, and historians record that a bank employee—killed in the raid—had refused to open the safe, which may not have even been locked.

Bank security has changed in many ways since those rough-and-ready days: structures, systems, materials and strategies have evolved with the passage of time. And while banks and other financial institutions most often retain their traditional appearances with thick steel vault doors and solid, substantial walls and windows, security has gone high tech and beyond.

In place of traditional steel padlocks are electrical systems. Technologic advancements, in the form of modular vault walls, bullet-resistant acrylic panels and cameras that can be programmed to focus on (as well as store) all that transpires within the building and the protected premises, show that financial institutions are doing their best to keep pace with the demands of the times and an often more sophisticated type of thief.

About 45 miles north of Northfield, in Minneapolis, Franklin National Bank is in an expansion mode from its origins as a neighborhood bank south of the city. It recently decided to build a new “flagship branch” in what is known as the warehouse district, adjacent to the city’s center. Part of that successful effort (the building won a local business publication’s Best in Real Estate 2001 award for redevelopment of a space under 30,000 square feet) was, of course, careful attention to security.

Security Products Co., a 32-year-old business located in nearby Blaine, and a dealer for Hamilton Safe in Fairfield, Ohio, provided the security installation for Franklin National Bank. Shingobee Builders of Loretto, also in Minnesota, was the general contractor on the project.

No banker’s hours

Don Ayd was Security Products Co.’s manager on the job. He said that, in general, working with a bank means meeting the challenge of the institution’s hours of operation, not only during construction, but as the institution requires ongoing service.

“We offer traditional security products and services such as vaults, safes, safe deposit boxes and alarms,” he said. “Different banks have different requirements, often depending on such things as card access to vault doors, day gates, etc.”

“We do a lot of remodels,” he continued, “and banks want to be open, so we have to work after hours and on weekends, making staffing a challenge.”

Perhaps even more than other clients, banks require prompt, 24-hour service. Security Products Co. meets that need with a staff of some 30 technicians among its 60-plus employees. Security Products Co. provides a warranty on the products it installs and maintains the installation with a service contract.

Since they are a Hamilton dealer, Ayd pointed out that most of the equipment they install, including alarms, is from Hamilton. The video cameras they install are from Sony Electronics. Cable is “always plenum cable,” he added, for fire safety and the company shops for that necessity from local distribution.

Because of wiring needs, one of the trickiest parts of meeting a bank’s security requirements is getting the door strikes on the vault doors properly located. “Getting the wire into where the door strike is laid out demands expertise in that area,” he said.

Installing the day gates (the secondary access to a vault, after the thick steel door) is also a matter of importance and requires getting the wire to the strike and also, to system control and power. Day gates are not always the traditional units made of bars, Ayd said, but can be acrylic panels, offering a more modern, aesthetic appearance, another plus for the banking facility and its customers.

In fact, the days when a bank prided itself on the image of being impregnable have slipped into history, too. Building design may have to conform to neighborhood code or the bank might have a corporate “look” that it needs to meet.

Security with style

Appearance is certainly more important now than it was 30 years ago, he pointed out. Bullet-resistant acrylic is used more often because it doesn’t discolor and provides a softer look.

In the same way, banks can choose from colors of steel, polished stainless or, at less cost, painted steel for such installations as safe deposit boxes. If a client wants it, Ayd said, a vault door can be fabricated from steel, engraved and the engraving filled in with black.

The Franklin installation, under the direction of Minneapolis-based HTG Architects, used dark brick to blend the outside of the structure with the surrounding warehouse buildings; the interior, however, made use of curves, soffit lighting and upholstered wooden furniture for a feeling of warmth and comfort.

Ayd said that many banks are taking advantage of five-inch-thick modular vaults; using these panels, the size of the vault can be expanded if the need arises.

The bank’s video system employs the latest technology, Ayd said, with digital signal processing color cameras that record images on a hard drive for efficient and instant access and playback.

“We handled the camera work, with digital motion detection in specific areas, such as around the vault door, programmed to red-flag unusual (such as after-hours) activity. The drive-through video is remote and two-way.”

Bank security has come a long way since the days of the James-Younger gang’s antics and ultimate demise. It is a high-tech solution that requires an experienced contractor and the latest products to get the job done right.