AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thursday, Austin City Council approved a new contract with Knox Associates Inc. for no more than $300,000 to bring in new lockboxes, keys and related equipment and services.
This all comes after the city released a memo in January, revealing that a burglary suspect was found with the master key to the Knox boxes at thousands of Austin buildings.
The Knox lock boxes are located on many public and private buildings around Austin — from City Hall to apartment complexes — and grant first responders quick access during emergencies without them having to break property or put themselves in danger. Keys to those boxes are kept in fire and emergency medical response vehicles in Travis County.
In November, Austin police arrested 28-year-old Anthony Kavanaugh on suspicion of burglarizing two non-residential properties using keys obtained from a locked Knox box opened using a master key.
According to an arrest affidavit, on Sept. 25, Dell Children’s Medical Center told Austin police about $31,000 stolen from the hospital’s cashier’s office. Video showed a man entering the hospital and “covertly” opening various doors by an unknown effort.
The hospital sent the surveillance video to other Seton Hospital security personnel and one person called to say he recognized the suspect as a prior hospital patient. Police identified Kavanaugh as the suspect but police didn’t arrest him until a couple of months later.
On Nov. 13, Manor police believe Kavanaugh broke into an urgent care center on Shadow Glen Boulevard. Manor police sent out surveillance video to other local law enforcement agencies and Lakeway police called back, recognizing the suspect from other burglary cases and believed he was breaking in using a master key.
Kavanaugh is still being held in the Travis County Jail on 14 charges, including several burglaries of a building.
According to City Council documents, investigators have yet to figure out how Kavanaugh got the master key and he isn’t sharing any information about it. Austin Fire is responsible for all the master keys for those boxes, which is why the city is paying for them to be replaced.
“Because there was a breach, what we decided to do is we’re going to re-key all of our boxes across the city with a new keyway that is secure,” said Aaron Woolverton, assistant chief with Austin Fire Department.
Austin Fire noted this is the first time since the installation that there’s been a known security breach of the lockboxes. Woolverton explained that the boxes are all over town, but they’re usually in places where the general public won’t look.
But there’s one hurdle in all this, the city’s lockboxes haven’t been re-keyed in the entire 34 years since they were installed, Woolverton said. In fact, the department doesn’t have information on where all of those boxes are yet.
“Through the 34-year history of Knox [in Austin] as you can imagine, record keeping hasn’t been the best, that’s actually something this has revealed,” Woolverton said. “So we are actually working to identify those boxes, we believe it to be in the 6,000 range, although there are boxes that could have been installed 30-40 years ago, it will take some time to identify them.”
The boxes themselves are going to stay where they are, and the contents of the boxes will stay the same, this funding will go toward changing how first responders access the boxes.
“The metal box that is mounted on the building will actually open the box up. There’s a mechanism that holds the actual key way that you have to put the key into, we’re just removing that and putting a new keyway in,” Woolverton explained.
He said that Knox is the most cost-effective company to work with for the lockboxes, they estimate it will cost $30 to $40 per box to make these changes.
To make things more secure, first responders will be required to prove those master keys are where they should be each week through visual checks and photos. Starting Monday, AFD will ask their operations crews to begin changing the locks out during the time they are not responding to calls. Woolverton said the goal is to have all the locks changed by March 1.
“As we’re looking into this more, we’re thinking a best practice may be, every 10 years to do this [re-keying] anyway, just to ensure the security of our taxpayers’ buildings is just that, secure,” Woolverton said.
Other departments use these boxes as well, including Travis County Emergency Services Districts and Austin-Travis County EMS.
Wesley Hopkins, division chief with ATCEMS, said lockboxes help his colleagues to get to patients quickly. Hopkins has confidence that these changes to the Knox box system will make things more secure.
“I think in the future — with the way the technology has advanced over 30 years — is that those Knox box secure keys that are able to be put on a cloud that’s encrypted and so you will see more active management system that’s online,” Hopkins said.
“That will be the way we’ll utilize those Knox boxes and the security of those keys in the future.” He clarified that first responders will work through the rest of the year with their current Knox boxes and the latest technology, then going forward in 2019 upgrade to the newer, more cloud-based technology.