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Bank aims to thwart thieves

By Mark Wineka
mwineka@salisburypost.com
Going in and out of this particular Salisbury bank can take some getting used to.
But the front-door security addition at the First Bank branch on Jake Alexander Boulevard has meant greater peace of mind for employees and customers.
In its third week of operation, “customers are getting to know how it works,” teller Jennifer Foster says.
First Bank has installed a state-of-the art weapons sensor in the vestibule of the branch, which has been a past target of robberies or attempted holdups, thanks mostly to the many busy arteries leading away from the office and its close proximity to Interstate 85.
“We’ve been hit like seven times,” vice president and branch manager Millie Cress says. “It’s not a real pleasant thing.”
Since the most recent robbery April 15, 2008, First Bank has employed an armed P&G Security guard at the branch. The Troy-based company’s board of directors also wanted to find something that would keep armed robbers from ever entering the bank.
“If you look through the security industry, that ability is kind of limited,” said Tom Clay, head of security for First Bank.
Clay and the bank eventually settled on equipment built by Hamilton Safe in Ohio, and it has transformed the branch’s vestibule into something resembling a steel chamber or vault.
Picture metal enclosed areas, one for entering and one for exiting. Add in cameras and concealed sensors in the bottom, top and sides. Don’t forget the bulletproof glass or the red and green lights telling you when to stop or when to go.
It can be a bit daunting at first glance, but actually it’s fairly simple to enter and exit the building, and the new equipment could even be called comforting.
Clay and Cress say customers understand, haven’t been intimidated and appreciate the bank’s efforts to look out for their safety.
“They feel better, and they feel better for us,” Cress says. “We know it’s a learning process, but they’re doing really good.”
Banking offices always want to provide a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, and Clay says bank officials were apprehensive about scaring customers away by making them go through the weapons sensor.
“It has had the opposite effect,” he says.
Cress credits her staff, led by teller supervisor Ann Walters, for making the transition in recent weeks easier.
“They make everybody so welcome when they walk in,” Cress says.
Clay, who has been in the bank security business for 34 years, says things have turned a bit more violent in recent years. When a robber’s gun actually discharged in a holdup at a High Point branch, he says the First Bank board’s reaction was, “We’ve got to do some things to prevent these people from even getting in the door.”
“That sort of expedited things for us,” Clay says.
Similar sensor equipment was installed first at the High Point branch.
Tellers have a video and audio link to the vestibule. If the metal sensors go off, the door going into the office from the vestibule remains locked.
A would-be robber with a gun has the option of turning around and leaving from the front door. Or a teller can lock the person in the chamber. Bottom line, the gun never gets inside.
While the exit chamber doesn’t need metal sensors, tellers also have the ability to lock someone in that bulletproof area as they leave. Maybe it’s someone who has not displayed a weapon but has demanded money with a note, which also can be intimidating.
Clay says one of the features of the entry system is to prevent a would-be robber from “pairing” up behind another customer. That is, sensors prevent him from slipping into the chamber with someone else and hiding a weapon that way.
“The ability to monitor for a weapon is very adjustable, so that a small handgun would set it off,” Clay says.
In places where this kind of expensive equipment is installed, bank robberies or attempted holdups are virtually eliminated, Clay says.
“This really needs to be something that all banks consider,” Cress says.
So far, bank employees say there haven’t been any real glitches. People who have something metal and harmless that might set off the sensors can place the items on a shelf inside the entry chamber so the teller sees them.
One customer’s steel-toed shoes set off an alarm, for example. The man was understanding and even took off his shoes before entering.

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