Best Practices for Key Control and Asset Management

Tim Purpura Mar 25, 2012 12:00:00 AM
Tim Purpura

Best Practices for Key Control and Asset Management

Where physical security is concerned, there are proven measures that can enhance the safety and safeguarding of a facility and valuable assets. While mechanical lock and key systems have been around for a long time, new technology enables them to be supported by an advanced key control and asset management system. Locks and keys are the most widely (and sometimes only) used security devices and can be found on anything to which access must be controlled, including vehicles, storage containers, doors, gates, windows and so on. As the security of a property or facility relies so heavily upon locking devices, a sound key management system is essential to an effective security program.

In almost any security application, key control and asset management systems are recognized as a proven solution to enhance physical security. The automated systems are designed to control, manage and track keys, releasing them only to authorized users. With computerized key control systems, the ability of individuals to exploit vulnerabilities which could lead to a loss or a less secure environment is greatly diminished.

A Solution for Lost Keys

One of the more common physical security challenges in an organization is the problem of lost or misplaced keys. A lost set of keys can leave an organization exposed, with the only safe course of action being to change all of the affected locks and keys. Not only does this incur considerable expense and time, it does not solve the issue over the long term. Manual systems that use log books, metal key boxes or color coded tags that can be easily torn or lost are particularly susceptible to this problem and the subsequent exposure. Conversely, automated key control systems provide a higher level of access control through sophisticated technology that allows management to program user restrictions or parameters determining who will be authorized to remove which keys, and when they must be returned.

In more advanced automated key control systems, each key is locked into place inside a stainless steel cabinet using a locking device with an integrated identification chip. Users can only remove a key which he or she is authorized to use by entering a pre-programmed PIN code or scanning their access card or biometric identification. If the criteria entered matches the information stored in the system database, the key cabinet will unlock and the selected key(s) can be removed or returned. The other keys will remain locked into place. For multiple key storage, tamper-proof key ring systems can accommodate several keys on a single key ring and keys can be added or removed without destroying the ring. Adding another layer of safety, with computerized key storage systems individual keys need not be labeled as to their purpose; the identification chip in the locking device serves as an electronic label. If a key disappears from the system, the system flags the missing key while the lack of a physical label keeps it from being discovered and used by an unauthorized user.

Alarms can also be triggered for certain predetermined circumstances such as the use of force to gain access or remove a key, invalid user codes, a door left open for more than 10 seconds after use, power failure, a key missing or not returned on time or a key returned by the wrong user.

Of course, keys are not the only items that are attractive to thieves. Valuable items such as iPads, cell phones and other communications devices, cash drawers and weapons may also need to be secured with controlled access when not in use. To temporarily store and safeguard these items, asset lockers can be integrated into the key control system with the same access protocols as keys. For example, law enforcement officers may be required to hand in their weapons when appearing at court to give testimony. Court security personnel will temporarily and safely store the weapon in the asset locker and retrieve it for return to the owner by again entering their pre-programmed access code to open the locker.

Tracking and Reporting Key Usage

Key storage without some form of automated tracking and accountability is at best an incomplete solution for managing keys. Not knowing when keys were accessed or by whom can quickly become a problem. Online monitoring, updating and reporting capabilities enhance the functionality of a key control system and add to the integrity of the overall security plan. At any time, security operations can view audit data showing who currently has which keys out, for what area and when they are scheduled to be returned; or who has had keys out, for what areas and when. When keys are not returned when scheduled, automated e-mail alerts can be sent to security management to allow quicker action.

Since each individual key is secured to a locking mechanism with a built-in memory chip, data from the chip is stored every time the key is inserted into a key slot, creating a remotely accessible data trail for every key in the system. Security managers can view data reports on every key that has been removed, how long it was out, who removed it and which location in which cabinet it was returned to. As part of the system, the automated record keeping can also serve to monitor an employee’s work schedule and productivity or help to eliminate false overtime claims. The automated record keeping can also help to reduce the number of man hours spent searching for keys or following up on incidents.

Ensuring that corporate policies and procedures are being followed is another benefit of an automated key control system. Because the system records activity, proof is provided each time a key is accessed or returned to the key cabinet. A user who can be held individually accountable for actions is less likely to disregard procedures or take other actions that might compromise operations. Information collected can also be applied to business operations; for instance, how many times an elevator room was accessed for maintenance, or how many times a vehicle was test driven in an auto dealership. In either case, recorded information can be rolled into standardized databases and spreadsheets for easy manipulation and analysis to maintain maximum control of access and security issues or operational procedures.

Today’s advanced key control solutions are further enhanced with operational support software. The software can run activity reports, sort based on different criteria, view and print reports and so on. Depending on the type of system, the software will either poll the individual key control cabinets for the data, or in the more advanced key management systems, the system will automatically send the transaction information back to a central server. The management software also maximizes the programmable access capabilities of the system. For example, if a late-night employee calls in sick and another staff member must cover for that individual, it is much easier for the manager to authorize access to keys remotely than to have to physically travel to the site to release a key for the covering employee.

Ease of Use and Convenience

Procedural efficiencies, aided by advanced technology solutions, can help minimize time and activities required for operation-related tasks. Looking at fleet management as an example, a driver would be able to pick up keys for a car and then drive the car to another location. The keys are returned to the key system cabinet in that location, with the system recording location and time so any authorized user looking for those keys will know where they are currently located.

Automotive dealerships are another application where the ease of use and convenience of key control systems is highly beneficial. Keys are put into the system and can be moved around the facility as the car moves. If the vehicle goes into the garage for maintenance, the key will be placed in the garage key control system cabinet. Then, when it comes back to the used car lot, the key will be returned to the system in that location. Reservations can even be made in the system to ensure that a car will be available for a scheduled test drive.

Other system conveniences may include large touchscreens on the front panel with an easier to use interface that offers step by step instructions. Keys available for access can be called up on the screen, along with information about the location of a specified key, what keys have not been returned and when a key will become overdue. Added features that help make the system easier and more efficient for everyone to use may also include illuminated key slots to locate requested keys more quickly, and random return capability (the ability to return a key to any key slot in the cabinet).

Key control systems can be conveniently programmed to meet the requirements of the organization including setting time and date parameters for each user, which can also help to ensure the deterrence and detection of unwarranted access to controlled areas. Key management systems with biometric identification access can resolve a situation where language and/or ease of use issues are a problem. Additionally, priority email alerts can be sent to security managers under a range of preset conditions.

System Integration and Design

A system integration approach to a physical security strategy offers many benefits to the user, including solutions that offer greater functionality, improved cost effectiveness and added modularity. Today’s updated approach to key management security is designed for complete interactivity with other business operations and security systems. The transparency of the integration allows for the functioning of each of the discrete processes while simultaneously and seamlessly merging the related functions.

Using a common front-end database, the area of movement for staff with keys can be defined by the parameters within the building that are controlled by various access-controlled doors. An example of this would be a user who has taken a specific key and then is denied egress from the facility until the key is returned. The parameters can be applied to users, keys, groups of keys, time restraints, reservations and so on.

Network access and compatibility with other systems offers an added richness and usability to the key control and management system. Optimizing key management and access control technology within a facility through system integration pays obvious rewards in terms of ROI (return on investment) by allowing best-in-breed security solutions to be maintained without the need to overhaul or replace costly installations.

From cabinet size to module selection to system integration, key control systems can be custom designed to accommodate almost any requirement. Configuring a key control solution begins with selecting a cabinet size and, if more than one cabinet is required, choosing either a linear (side-by-side) or a stacked arrangement. Cabinet doors may be solid steel or they may be see-through polycarbonate designs. Choices for modules may include a selection of mechanical key storage modules, card modules, lockers of various sizes and blank modules to be filled at a later time. The combination of modules is entirely up to the user, which provides the ability to customize the system to meet specific needs.


Many organizations have successfully implemented key control systems and policies as part of a major trend toward integrating security and business operations. This trend is certain to continue as companies and facilities increase their attention to risk management on all levels. As long as there are physical keys and assets to secure, there will be a need for key control and management.