Robbers using firefighter keys to break in 

A small piece of firefighting equipment may be partially responsible for a series of break-ins that have plagued San Francisco office buildings for six months.

About 12 burglaries have been reported in which thieves have accessed locked exterior boxes that contain building entry keys meant for use by the San Francisco Fire Department, San Francisco Police Department Inspector Alan Honiball, of the department’s burglary detail, said Tuesday.

The small, metal, light-switch-size boxes attached to the exterior of buildings contain front-door keys. If the fire department is called to the building while it is empty, firefighters can use a master key to access the building instead of breaking down the front door.

There are 550 buildings in The City classified as high-rises, and they are required to have key boxes if they do not have 24-hour security, fire Capt. Brendan O’Leary said. Residential buildings with more than 16 units also must have a key box if they have a sprinkler system, alarm panel or locked roof access.

While the department does not have a master list of all the key boxes, O’Leary estimated the number at 1,000 citywide.

But some of the keys have apparently made it into the hands of criminals. The first break-in occurred last December, Honiball said. Police arrested two suspects in that case, but there have been several more break-ins, most recently on May 1 at Levi’s Plaza.

"They’re opportunists," Honiball said of the burglars. "Whatever’s there, they take." Usually that includes office equipment such as computers. A bicycle was also taken from Levi’s Plaza.

Every firefighter has a key to the boxes, O’Leary said Tuesday, but the department does not have a total count of how many keys exist. When a firefighter loses a key, the department documents the loss, but it is not practical to change all the locks on all the key boxes in The City because of one lost key.

But until it can introduce a new, more secure system, the Fire Department has relaxed the key-box requirements. Building owners can remove the keys from the boxes as long as they alert the fire marshal.

"Frankly, I think the risk of a fire is less than the risk of getting broken into right now," said Ken Cleaveland, director of government and public affairs for the Building Owners and Managers Association. He recommended that building owners and managers remove the keys from the key boxes until a new, coded system is put in place.

The proposed new system, called Traccess, uses a PIN code to access the boxes instead of a physical key. The boxes are also bigger, stronger and mounted more securely into the wall. The department has been working to institute a new system for about two years, O’Leary said.

Building owners who decide to remove keys from their boxes can call (415) 558-3300 to report the removal to the fire marshall.

amartin@examiner.com

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