American Alarm takes on the Brink’s robbery

The Travel Channel taps the Bay State company for the lowdown on bank security, then and now
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Friday, January 6, 2012

ARLINGTON, Mass.—The men behind the Great Brink’s Robbery of 1950 used months of training and calculation to pull off what the media of the day called “the crime of the century.” But could a heist like Brink’s be pulled off today, given the security technologies now commonplace at U.S. banks?

The Travel Channel wanted to find out, so it went to an expert in the field: American Alarm & Communications, based here.

As part of its “Hidden City” series with host Marcus Sakey, the network traveled to Boston last summer to film a segment that aired on Dec. 13. The producers took on the legacies of the Boston Strangler, Whitey Bulger and the men behind the Brink’s caper.

The heist at the North End depository on Jan. 17, 1950 netted more than $2.7 million in cash and securities, which at the time was the largest robbery in U.S. history. While all 11 members of the gang were eventually arrested and eight were sentenced to life in prison, most of the money was never recovered.

To see how bank security technology has evolved in the wake of Brink’s, the Travel Channel reached out to American Alarm, which handles the systems and monitoring for more than 500 bank branches in the Boston area. Sakey and the network’s crew filmed at American Alarm’s command center in Arlington and at its former central station.

Wells Sampson, president of American Alarm, gave Sakey a tour of the command center and described the modern security systems that banks employ. Despite their thoroughness and preparation, the Brink’s robbers likely would be thwarted by today’s technologies, Sampson said.

“Multi-layered security systems in place today would make this kind of robbery extremely difficult,” he told Security Systems News. “The locks on doors now, and the access control systems, are far more sophisticated. It’s not just a question of duplicating keys, because in many cases there are no keys.”

Sampson said the Brink’s gang had to overcome five bank employees—some of them serving as armed guards—and five conventional door locks to gain access to where the money was being counted and stored.

“They planned the job for months and were able to steal the lock cylinders, one at a time, and make duplicate keys, then replace the lock cylinders before anyone noticed,” he said. “So they had keys, walked right in and surprised the guards.”

Locks would be the least of their problems today, Sampson said.

“People need access cards, PIN numbers, and may also need biometric authentication to enter a heavily restricted area,” he said. “Then, the motion detectors and video surveillance would have detected the intrusion in seconds, long before the robbers would have made it up into the (second floor) counting room. Furthermore, there would be panic buttons in various locations, and an employee most surely would have been able to hit one unnoticed.”

All of these systems are covered by 24/7/365 monitoring over multiple communications channels, Sampson said, which means help can be dispatched to the scene in seconds.

“So while it’s hard to say ‘never,’ I think it’s extremely unlikely the Brink’s robbers could have done today what they did in 1950,” he said.

Additional monitoring technologies are coming that will extend protection for banks, with an increased focus on biometrics.

“Megapixel cameras and networked recording will get stronger and more intelligent,” Sampson said. “Facial recognition technologies will be improved and layered in, so the ability to capture images of robbers and push pictures to law enforcement in real time (will be) widespread. Facial recognition systems could also be applied to ATM locations, to verify that the person at the machine is, in fact, the account holder. Remote video monitoring for incident authentication, I think, will also become more widespread, so those are a few areas to watch.”

For more on the Brink’s heist, go to www.travelchannel.com/video/the-perfect-bank-heist.