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Contributed by: Brett Mikkelson

Upon purchasing a safe, there are several general things that you should account for to ensure you are buying the right one for your needs.

1. Security is obviously the first and foremost point that you need to take into consideration. There are safes to hold documents, (fire resistant for 1-2 hours), and there are three levels of theft prevention safes as well (high, medium and low).


There are simple residential safes that are made with solid iron with electronic or mechanical locks. They offer a low level of security for intruders, but a high level of security for house-based employees; these are not fire resistant whatsoever. These are not easy to open in a non-violent manner and are resistant to simple manual tools such as hammers and chisels depending on the quality of the safe.

There are fire resistant safes with a thin plate of metal which creates a mold that is filled with a low density material against fire. They are however vulnerable to simple manual tools such simply because the plate of metal is so thin. These safes provide a low level of security against intruders, a medium level of security against house-based employees and a medium level of security against fires.

2. Price: The price of a safe is also very important important. The most expensive safe, may not necessarily be the right safe for your needs. Everything is based on what you plan to put IN the safe and there are inexpensive safes that provide very good security for your needs.

I recall conducting a security study for a warehouse in the Colon Free Zone. The warehouse contained approximately US$500,000 worth of high risk merchandise. By “high risk”, I mean anyone would love to have it or is easy to sell and it’s small enough or light enough to carry away easily in a truck or on foot. Anyways, the only security this place had was a paddle lock. That was it. A half a million dollars protected by a $5.00 lock. The same thing happens often in high society apartments with safes. We did a case a year ago where a safe was bought at $200 to protect millions in priceless heirlooms and thousands of dollars in cash. The safe was torn through in the apartment and no one saw anything.

3. The age of the safe (if it’s second-hand), every safe has a date of expiration as for fire resistance and theft prevention. The industry is always finding stronger and more resistant materials for the construction of safes as well as tools to open them. It usually best to buy a new safe or change out your old safe before the 10yr mark.

4. The way a safe is constructed is also important. Nowadays, many safes are made by robots for mass production of this product. However, the majority of theft prevention safes are made manually or at least implements a human work force within the chain of robots that are creating the safe.

If you have never purchased a safe or if you have, but have never been given proper orientation as to what safe you should purchase, you should always consider employing the services of a security consultant to assist you.

You should always think about who you are trying to protect the articles from. Sounds silly right, you wouldn’t want anyone to have them. The type of safe, will give you a specific level of security.

Here is a practical method to determine what safe to purchase as per past scenarios that I’ve personally dealt with:

SCENARIO NUMBER 1: The client is having issues with the loss of petty cash in the work place. He is presently using a small “petty cash box” which is nothing more than a small aluminum box with a key. Although the weekly losses are minimal ranging from $5.00 to $20.00, the yearly losses would calculate to be a burden if left this way. After inspecting the box, we noted that it could also be easily opened with a paperclip or other small sturdy metallic item.

FACTS: The person that is doing this is simply a scrounger and in most cases is the same person who is handling the petty cash. Access is easily obtained and since the amounts that are taken are small, most usually no drastic measures are taken against the office personnel. No one gets in trouble, so the petty theft continues over a long period of time until something is done about it or the person who is doing it is leaves the company one way or another. Most intruders will not make the effort to break in to an office which has medium security to steal $100 of petty cash. Most employees would not take the risk of breaking open a safe during or after hours, especially if they also know that there is only petty cash inside the box, regardless of their level of access to the safe. It is usually quite easy to determine if a theft included or was limited to internal cases.

SOLUTION: Buying a $1,000 safe makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. They would definitely secure the money, but they are bulky and accessing them would be time consuming, defeating the purpose of petty cash. Control is all that is needed to deter any form of security issue and the form of control required here is cheap and simple. To deter further theft in this situation, a small safe, priced around $100, with a manual or electronic combination, is all that is needed. Sure, someone could walk off with something like this, but it would be very difficult and the reward for someone who gets away with this is minimal. They would be better off to walk away with a laptop or PC. So, if a medium level of security is implemented to secure the computers such as a basic security alarm (watch for our next report on local alarm services), you won’t need anything else.

SCENARIO NUMBER 2: A family living in a large apartment in Costa del Este has a large amount of jewelry valued at over $400,000 that they insist on keeping in the home as well as a few thousand dollars that need to be kept out of the hands of others.

FACTS: Anyone would love to have $400,000, even someone who already has more than $400,000. Keeping something like this in the house is a bad idea and this amount of jewelry is usually never used often enough to justify it remaining within the house. This is a temptation that should be secured in a safety deposit box. As a rule of thumb, no more than $50,000 of jewelry should be kept in the house at any given time. This is sometimes tough to do, as higher dollar items such as a Rolex or an Omega could cost easily cost more than $10,000 and keeping only 5 of such items between several family members could be difficult. Without naming names, we’ve investigated over 10 of these types of cases in Panama totaling over $3,000,000 in lost cash jewelry, recovering only about 10%. In 7 of the 10 cases we were able to find the culprit and half of these were jailed.

SOLUTION: As I already mentioned, that amount of jewelry really should be in the bank’s safety deposit vault, if you must absolutely maintain it in the house/apartment you will need a drastically higher level of security than normal. Before even thinking about a safe, an alarm should be installed in the home for when no one is around. This alarm should be interconnected to a monitoring station who can react immediately to a distress signal. You should also be set up with a panic button in the event someone decides to risk entering the premises when someone IS at home. All of the employees should be instructed on what measures to take when someone visits and the owners are not around. A security study should be completed to ensure the systems that have been or will be implemented are sufficient and/or required. Once all of this is completed, THEN you can quote your safe. The safe should be large enough to hold the merchandise and of a higher grade of metal to avoid it being easily cut open in a short amount of time within the home. The safe should also be mounted to the floor and sealed in cement reinforced with steel rods. In an interview with Heriberto Martinez from Nova Cajas Fuertes, they specifically recommend model number TL30X6 which is the smallest they have measuring 42” tall, 27” wide by 30” deep. It has an overall thickness of 4.5” and a 2” defense barrier. The cost is just under $4,000 and it weighs 2,050 lbs. The contents of this safe can be insured for up to $350,000. You can contact Nova by going to their website at

SCENARIO NUMBER 3: A corporate client wishes to safeguard his money, jewelry and personal documents.

FACTS: Corporate documents such as from the Public Registry, as well as Passports, Wills, Deeds, Titles, Money and other said documents or paper will not withstand a fire if placed within a safe whose sole purpose is theft prevention.

Iron melts at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit
Paper burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit – remember Ray Bradbury’s book-burning novel “Fahrenheit 451”?
A house fire, Wood or Cement can ignite and burn between 500 and 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the construction.

If the temperatures surrounding the safe surpass 451, the papers within will cook and be damaged at the least. If the fire surrounding the safe surpasses the safe’s limited 1,100 degrees, the safe will melt and the documents will disintegrate. The temperature does not have to reach 1,100 degrees however to damage the documents. It only has to be heated more than 500 degrees, for a certain amount of time depending on the level of heat applied.

SOLUTION: To avoid losing precious documents from a fire, you need to shield the documents from this level of heat. If you own a house, a fireproof safe should be installed in the ground floor as heat rises and this position will assist in shielding it from the fire. For a two-story home, if the fire is strong enough the upper levels could collapse and if your safe is on one of these upper levels, it could easily break open from the fall. There are also safes which combine both theft prevention and fire resistance. Our personal recommendation would be to separate the two under this specific scenario.

If you have any further questions about what safe is best for you, you may either contact our office or contact Mr. Heriberto Martinez at Nova who assisted greatly in putting this article together. Nova has over 30 years in the business and they know what they’re talking about.

TELEFONO: (507) 223-4594
FAX: (507) 223-4593

Panama Kevin