Personal Security

Living in a low-risk environment, personal security is something that is generally taken for granted; unwatched and unminded, where everything miraculously sort of takes care of itself. The US suburbs  for the most part are quiescent where break- ins and violent crime happen infrequently.

The equation shifts somewhat for someone living in an urban environment. After a few years of living in Washington, DC it occurred to me that a gunshot wound was never any further than a small misunderstanding away.

An old defense contractor work compadre of mine was laughably famous for saying, ‘bad things happen when you go outside’. The truly funny thing is he was only half joking every time he said it.

I have been security conscious for as long as I can remember. The three story house I built in the mountains of western North Carolina had 9 exterior facing doors, not including the garage door. 6 of those doors were sliding- glass doors: 2 on the first level, 3 on the second level and 1 on the top floor.

Never at any time was any more than one door unlocked with possible exception of the top level which I kept open to facilitate the passage of fresh air. Why you ask. Am I paranoid?

No, the simple fact is I don’t like surprises. I didn’t want to have spent all morning working in the workshop downstairs running power tools to go upstairs for lunch and find some drifter with a gun standing in my kitchen. Locked doors keep that kind of thing from happening.

And whenever I return home I am like the suspicious housecat who is always on the prowl to see if anything has changed or been moved in their absence. That’s a habit so old it probably goes back to childhood when I had numerous secrets that needed to be protected.

When I used to drive, I would always inspect the car especially at night by doing a complete lookover before I got in. I wanted to know about things like flat tires before I pulled out onto the road.

I don’t go to concerts, football games, or engage in any indoor activity that has orders of magnitude more people than the building has exits. The last indoor concert I went to was way back in ’75 to see Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention perform.

That might sound silly to you but I’ve seen way to many crazy things in my life and in the immortal words of Roy Buchanan, ‘I’ve walked in a lot of places I never should have been.’

For instance, when I was taking the boat up the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia, I sat on top of the boat, in the blazing sun.  There was no way I was going below deck with a hundred other people on a vessel that had only 2 exit doors. If that boat ever rolled over I was planning on being able to swim for it.

Yup, I think like that. Don’t ask me why because I have no idea. Maybe it all stems from latent childhood criminal tendencies. Who knows?

I bring all this up because living now as I do in a high-risk environment – Michoacán, Mexico – I follow the same security protocols. In fact, I surprised myself just the other day by finding a serious security flaw in two of my exterior facing terrace doors. One of the doors leads to a small street facing terrace on the second floor while the other does the same on the third floor. BTW – I live a tall, skinny apartment (less than a 1000sf I am sure) but it spans 3 levels plus includes a fifth floor rooftop. That’s right, lots and lots of stairs.

So anyway, I got to looking at these two doors. They’re made out of steel – welded 2” wide flats – with lots of pleasingly thick beveled glass inserts. They’re not dead-bolted but instead have an exposed interior bolt lock and because they’re double doors one of them has a thick metal plate that overlaps the outer edge of the one that locks. Furthermore, there is a thick steel pin on a hinge that penetrates a steel U-shaped housing securing the top of the one non-locking door. Secure, right?

One would think so, they certainly look so, but oh no. And when I discovered the security vulnerability I wanted to choke whichever stupid bastard built and installed them.

Long story short, all a person would need to get into the apartment would be to break one small pane of glass, lever that hinged pin down and pull the doors outwards. Unbelievably simple. I fixed that problem today by padlocking the hinge mechanism so that the pin cannot be forced down.

I am pretty happy about that now. I always love fixing something especially when it’s a fatal flaw in some ignoramus’s supposedly bulletproof design.

My buddy, Behan’s apartment building in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood was broken into one time by some kids who clambered across the rooftops to access a tiny window at the door access of the eighth floor rooftop. The window was no bigger than 12” X 12” and it had to have been the smallest and youngest member of the gang who was able to wiggle through such a small opening before then letting the rest of the thieves into the building.

I constantly marvel over the ingenuity of those certain type of people who spend hours and hours exercising great criminal minds, all to avoid holding down some day job.

Be it said, security even in the best of circumstances can be highly deceptive. Take those two steel doors of mine. From the outside that look impregnable, like you’ve got to break several panes of glass and saw through several bars of steel to gain entry. But as I discovered, that was not the reality.

Criminals live in houses just like mine and it shouldn’t take great genius to make a similar observation; where typically every system has at least a single point of vulnerability.

My last house is another case in point. The single security weakness in that house was the backdoor that led into the kitchen. Yes, it was steel too but its vulnerability lay in the fact that the door opened inward and the single point of failure was the deadbolt that stabbed directly into the masonry of the wall. The lock didn’t even have a strike plate. One single smack on the lock with even the lightest of sledge hammers would have opened that door in a second.

Be ever vigilant my friends.

I periodically remind my 27 year old daughter that situational awareness is her single greatest defense in staying safe.

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