Wayne Winton’s Locksmith Live online program recently featured a question-and-answer session with Dave McOmie, author of 24 technical books on safe servicing, along with book number 25, a memoir. The long-ranging interview is a must-watch event for any safe technician, but long-time safe techs will especially enjoy McOmie’s stories about his start in the industry and about other legends of the safe industry.
In this article, we share a few questions and answers and stories, without delving into too much technical detail. Check out McOmie’s website www.davemcomie.com, and his National Safeman's Organization (NSO) Safecracker Support Forum for more detailed information. This article presents only a small portion of the discussion at Wayne Winton’s Locksmith Live meeting in October.
Watch online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPc_ZHp7UE0
How did you get started?
I came into the industry in quite an unusual way. I came in by way of the mid-1960s television show It Takes A Thief, starring Robert Wagner. He could pick any lock, crack any safe and the ladies just fell at his feet.
My parents bought me a home locksmithing study course for Christmas. Then the lady next door’s keys got stolen and locksmith Eugene Corey came out and picked the locks on her house and car and then made keys for them. I found it fascinating. If he had been a mean guy, I probably never would have ended up in the industry, but he was as nice as he could be. I spent time learning from this locksmith and then he hired me as a young apprentice.
Drilling safes now involves thousands of dollars of drills and scopes. What was the equipment like when you started out?
We didn’t have a lot of the tools we have now 50-plus years ago. We didn’t have scopes or much in the way of a drill rig, which was a long industrial screwdriver and a chain.
I remember paying Lockmasters $1,600 for an early superscope. At one time that was the state of the art. (Winton noted that a $3,000 scope collection can nearly be replaced with a $200 electronic scope now.)
What was the time and date of your first safe opening and the brand?
The first safe was a Sentry. The safes I opened were in increasing difficulty. I didn’t start with an ISM; I started with a Sentry in the shop under Mr. Corey’s guidance. This was 1972. We worked our way up from there to fire safes and B-rated safes.
That was back before there were any scopes. We had a Champion spark plug light from the auto parts store, basically a cheap little industrial otoscope. Consequently, we had to drill big holes right at the edge of the wheels there at the tailpiece -- big holes, line of sight and however much light your flashlight could shine down there.
Scopes were a game changer like no other. There’s been no other tool introduced to the industry that had such a radical and immediate impact.
How many openings do you do a year and how many did you do in your peak?
I was never turning in crazy numbers because I specialize in difficult containers and bank vaults, so I'm on planes a lot or was on planes a lot. At my peak I averaged seven or eight a week and now I'm only doing a couple and I'm happy. Running the NSO is time-consuming.
When the National Locksmith went under and left me to run the NSO, I had to give up my favorite hobby, which was collecting scopes. I used to buy and sell scopes and I absolutely loved it. It was like Christmas when I would get a big box of discarded scopes from a medical supplier.
Any good training stories from your early days?
I bought a whole truckload of Liberty Safes that were all lockouts for pennies on the dollar. I got my education in a storage unit with a battery-powered light and just went to town. I was like ‘hey I'm not going to destroy customer safes. I'll open these and figure out what the tricks are.’ I was able to create worse-case scenarios and then get them open, rebuild them, put a new lock on them and then sell them. I was able to make a profit on it at the end.
How do you choose the topics for your technical bulletins?
I used to put a little bit of everything in each issue. I've since changed that to doing specific topics or specific types of safes. For example, I'm working right now on a series of bulletins devoted to Mosler fire safes. They're a little complicated and hard to identify. Those locks have different drill points so you want to first be able to identify which lock you have so that you can then use the correct drill point.
Tell us about your greatest professional triumph.
The thing I've spent most of my time doing is working out drill points and revising them and revising them until I'm happy with them, but my favorite drill point is actually not a drill point. I'm most proud of unlocking the secret to Diebold's jeweler chests.
Tell us about a professional regret. Is there anything that maybe you wish you would have done a little bit differently?
I deeply regret the friction that existed between NSO and SAVTA [Safe & Vault Technicians Association] in the early days.
What is your Kryptonite?
The jobs that I dread the most to be honest are high-security safes with a particular key lock that I don't have a tool for. I can always get them open by drilling but some of them are a huge pain to drill. I cross my fingers and hope that I have a pick or a decoder and if I don't, we have to drill.
What's your work van or truck?
I have a Chrysler Pacifica and I absolutely love it. When I bought my Pacifica, it was the only van that came available as a hybrid so I bought the hybrid. If I'm not going out on a job and am just running errands, I have enough charge to run on the battery. Yep, I don't even use gas.
What is the best advice for somebody who's just getting started in the safe and vault world?
If they're already in the industry, it’s a piece of cake. Once a guy or gal learns the basics, it opens up a whole new horizon. When you really think about it, how many different methods do we use to open safes? Five or six, that's it, but the catch and the hard part is using the right one at the right point on the right safe.
As far as people getting into the industry, organizations like ALOA [Associated Locksmiths of America] and SAVTA are great places to start. Your membership dues will get you the background check that you need to see if you can qualify, depending on your state and the licensing requirements.
That's my favorite joke when people ask me, ‘hey are you licensed to do this stuff?’ I tell them that you got to have a license to drive a car but I don't need one to break into a safe in my state.
Understanding your local laws would probably be the number one thing that you need to do. Understanding your local licensing would be the number two.
What would you tell your 18-year-old self today?
I would tell my 18-year-old self just hang there for now and in just a few years, your job is going to become a dream. Technology is coming to save the day. Imagine what they would do if they saw the tools and phones and all the stuff we have now. If CL Corey could see how easily we can drill through most hard plates today, it would blow his mind.
This is a fantastic time to be in the industry. Look at all the recent innovations. We have the Phoenix, the little black box, and so many great innovations are coming out. I'd much rather be doing this work now than at any time in the past
Do you want to talk about your book Safecracker just a little?
I'm happy that the book is still selling but I am writing a novel. It's a novel but it features a real person – me. I'm called out to open a vault in a home and the people who called me out had full documentation but they aren't the actual owners of the home so things take a turn.
Are you able to talk about the Prince safe opening? How did you get the phone call?
I got an email from a law firm in Minneapolis and it was so cryptic that I couldn't understand what they wanted. I mis-read this one and ignored it. Eventually, we connected with each other and everything got worked out. The lady that I dealt with at the firm was Prince’s personal attorney for years before she went to work for this other firm. She picked me up at the airport and drove me out to Paisley Park. When we walked in, there were people everywhere. She introduced me to all the bankers and the lawyers and we made our way into the vault room.
I noticed that everything on the walls and on the floor was covered in plastic. The archivist said, ‘whoa, we didn't know what you were going to do so we put plastic over everything just in case the explosions cause dust in the air.’ I did my best not to smirk or smile and I just assured him, no explosions, we're just going to drill a little bitty hole through this thick vault door and get it open that way.
I've been in hundreds or thousands of bank vault rooms and this was enormous. Inside the vault were industrial shelving units housing unrecorded music just waiting to be worked on. The archivist was thrilled.
The door itself was a Mosler American Century and it's the only American Century that I've ever drilled that had the equivalent of iron in it. This hard plate was actually made by the Scher company for Mosler.
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