Managing High-Rise Master Key Systems

May 1, 2008

Locksmiths who maintain master key systems in high-rises face specific challenges. Emergency response personnel must have immediate access to all areas of the building, on demand. Frequent tenant turnover generates rekeying requests. High rises are targets for terrorists; therefore heightened security levels leave no room for chance regarding unauthorized entry. By developing certain techniques, locksmiths keep from over-extending or misusing the building’s master key system.

Iron-clad policy
In order to establish that the locksmith is acting as the owner’s agent and is the single source to obtain keys and order key services, written policy is established that states the intentions and instructs tenants on how to work with the locksmith.
The policy includes how keys are to be issued and what services are available.
The policy should establish deposits on keys that will be returned when keys are returned. This motivates tenants to return keys when not needed and inhibits passing keys in an unauthorized fashion to others.
Part of the policy limits issuance so that duplicates (of controlled keys) cannot be issued to individuals.
The policy needs to ensure that other agents or outside services cannot infringe or impede the locksmith’s efforts. The goal of this part of the policy is to keep others from coming in and compromising the key system by producing unauthorized keys or rekeying locks.

The locksmith is in charge of a turnkey operation that tracks all events relating to key issuance and return.
The building owner and the locksmith should create an official key issuance form and make it available to tenants. The form includes the names and signatures of persons authorizing the keys and the name, contact information, and signature of the person who will receive the key. It should clearly list the amount of the deposit and a statement of the facts.
Periodic reports are sent to the owner relating to keys issued and returned.
Routine owner audits will be performed to ensure records compliance by the locksmith.
As tenants learn of the key tracking, they are more likely to comply with policy and keep requests reasonable. When they go on record as the person initiating rekey, the rekey is more likely to be practical. Tight key control limits the number of keys that are swapped or not returned.

Not Everybody Needs A Master
The goal of master keying the high-rise is to make sure that emergency services have the use of a single key to streamline their moves into the building. The goal is NOT to demonstrate that all levels of master key can be applied, thereby giving every little “chief” a sub master to the chief’s part of the domain.
Floors of the high-rise can be set up so that individual master keys can function for each floor.
People who need to carry building master keys might be: operational and security managers; maintenance supervisors and lead persons; custodial managers; and others whose job require it.
For prestige, some owners like to carry a single key that access all areas of the building. Others who are more savvy realize that it is more prestigious to have doors opened for them, and they can’t lose what they don’t carry.
In reality there never is one key that opens all. Some areas are required to be off the building master key.
The high-rise locksmith must make sure that all areas of the building can be accessed by first responders and accessible by their specifications.
Fire departments require an updated set of keys that allow them to access all parts of the high-rise.
A modern trend that needs to be addressed is the “Active Shooter” policy adopted by local law enforcement agencies. Across the country, law enforcement agencies are changing the means in which they handle the “active shooter,” a person who is firing off shots in a public place.
The preferred policy empowers the local agency to meet, develop a plan, and move in quickly and aggressively to contain the active shooter. This means that sets of master keys need to be securely and safely stored at a strategic location so that law enforcement can be effective.
Universities and companies are being sued for not acting swiftly enough to get persons out of harm during these Columbine-like incidents. It’s easy enough to predict that there will be lawsuits if law enforcement can’t get the keys they need in a timely manner during an active shooter incident.

Key alike;
keep it simple
Sub- master keys are available where every electrical and communication room on every floor can be accessed while the individual floor master keys can still operate that room on that specific floor. Why go through that effort when it usually is the same persons who need access into all those areas?
These areas should be periodically rekeyed and therefore should be keyed the same to keep it simple. When other vendors need access, special arrangements can be made to provide a temporary key and to arrange the proper return.
When rekeying suites of offices, not every office needs to be keyed different.
In the modern workplace, the trend is to get away from locked office doors and offices entirely, so it is possible to key all offices on a floor (or part of a floor) alike. This technique can drastically limit the number of wasted combinations when it comes to rekey.

As a department moves, key it all to pass
When an entire department moves to a new location within the building, gain approval from the head of the department to rekey in two passes. The chambers of all the cylinders or cores that would normally be keyed alike to conform to the floor master are filled; the rest of the chambers left open (see Figure 3).
A “common” floor key is developed using a change key dedicated to that floor. This key is generally issued to persons needing access.
As people settle in, most realize they do not need the added security. Those persons who need the added security can have their areas upgraded. The rest of the chambers are appropriately filled, essentially locking -out people with common keys.
This sensible approach results in a less complicated key strategy and wastes less overall combinations.

Label all doors
Use foilized-mylar labels with large sequential numbers. Consistently place the label on the flat surface of the top hinge on the active door. In this manner the label is out of site and protected. When there is a question about what door needs to be rekeyed, ask the requestor to open the door; and then read the number from the label on the hinge. (Foilized-mylar labels are available from printer supply companies.)
The numbers in Figure 4 are too small to read. Use at least quarter-inch high numbers. The best format I have found is three digits, followed by a hyphen, and then four digits.
Ask the requestor to read the phone number from the label. Research proves that seven digits are easier than five or six for humans to remember as we are pre-programmed to look at phone numbers.

Collect Plans
Plans are available for all high-rises. The best means to obtain floor plans is to request electronic DWG or Cad drawings. From the Internet you can download free readers for these drawings and then cut and paste portions of the floor plans into your word processor or graphic programs.
Build a library of what you work on and it will streamline you effort. Additionally, these drawing can then be discussed with requestors of work to verify that everybody is on the same page.

It’s OK to Cross-Key
Effective rekey of high-rises is not for the faint of heart.
It is okay to cross-key a cylinder if you can predict the results. Existing combinations that will be affected need to be dealt with; and unused combinations that are affected need to be permanently isolated.
A cylinder might be cross-keyed so that manager who has offices on two different floors can access both offices with his change key. The cross-keying would allow the floor masters to operate properly.
The front entry door leading into a suite of offices might be cross-keyed so that all the different office keys could access the door. This is sometimes called Maison keying (French for house).
When a cylinder is cross-keyed, a “snapshot” of the pin stack needs to be recorded and archived.

Leaving Chambers Open
In theory, all master keyed cylinders should have all chambers filled, but this does not happen in the real world.
The entry door leading into a suite of offices might be keyed where several chambers in the lock cylinder or core are left empty (rather than filled with master wafers to accommodate Maison keying). The advantage of this is that there is less to go wrong with the pin stacks as there are less moving parts. The disadvantage is that more key combinations can access the cylinder (although these combinations would be from keys outside of the master key system).
Cylinders or cores where chambers are left open should be of very low security.
Certain locked restrooms might have lock cylinders or cores that have empty chambers. The chambers that are empty would normally distinguish which floor the restroom is on. The goal is that persons from one floor can access a restroom on another.
Some locked doors are used hundreds of times per day. A typical example is a bus terminal where the restroom is dedicated to the bus operators. Small-format interchangeable cores can wear out in less than 90 days under these circumstances. To increase the time between service calls on these areas, one lock shop leaves three chambers empty on these low security doors. This does prolong the life of the core.
Note: Remember if a door is opened on the average 20 times an hour, in a 24-hour operation that is 480 times a day or 43,200 times in 90 days. That is equivalent of 30 years worth of service on an office door.

Strategic Use of Keyless Locks
There are places in the high-rise where hundreds of persons need access. Areas like computer rooms, back doors of kitchens, delivery doors and employee entry doors are best served by replacing the mechanical lock with a pushbutton lock. The pushbutton lock should be equipped with a lock cylinder that can be keyed to the building master key for override purpose.
The advantage is that the pushbutton lock can be reprogrammed many times without affecting the master key system. Another advantage is that hundreds of keys do not have to be issued every time the lock is reprogrammed.

Key Sequencers As Passive Key Management
Key sequencers complement key control. A sequencer is a solid block with two cylinders or cores linked together so that when one key is removed, the other key is trapped. Either one or the other key can be removed but both cannot be removed at the same time.
A typical use is converting a small conference room for a visiting tax auditor. A sequencer is mounted near the door. Trapped into the sequencer is the only key to the small conference room. Any key on that floor can access the sequencer, including a temporary key for the auditor.
In the morning, the auditor inserts his visitor’s key and removes the conference room door key. He now is guaranteed complete private access to the conference room until he is ready to leave.
Another application controls the use of master keys throughout the high-rise by custodians. The night-shift custodians are given common “custodian” keys. These open all custodian closets. In each custodian closet is a floor master trapped into a sequencer. The custodian removes any floor master by inserting the custodian key in the block. In order to retrieve the custodian key, the floor master must be returned to the block.
If the key isn’t retrieved, the next custodian reports the missing key and the locksmith records the key number trapped in the block. That number identifies the custodian who took the floor master key. This process guarantees that custodians do not leave their shift with master keys.

In Summary
This article deals with the reality of working with master key systems in high-rises. Many of the techniques mentioned should only be attempted by experienced locksmiths who know how to skew the rules slightly in the effort to preserve valuable “real estate” within the pages of their master key system. The point is that the rules can be safely skewed by experts.