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Antique Safes/older file cabinets fire proof?


Im curious if a school file cabinet -around 1980 -85 would have been fire proof or fire resistant. It held lots of school records so I assume they bought a good quality


ANSWER: Peter,

you know what they say about "assuming" anything!   Just because a school owned it, means nothing concerning its quality or capabilities.

If the container has any type of fire resistance, it will have a label, indicating WHAT is level of resistance is.   If it is from the 1980's it will have a UL label, probably indicating about 1 hour of resistance.    Older containers prior to 1965 were either 1/2 hour or 1 hour rated.    Generally containers OVER 50 years old DO NOT meet current standards and should not be used.

If you have any specific questions concerning the container, I'll need to know who the manufacturer is, and WHAT labels are on it.

Hope this helps,

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: thanks
so i know this invites a speculative answer but here goes . assume a pre 1965 . what kind of fire and duration would render the contents worthless. would it have to be a serious hot fire that continued for 1/2 hr or more? I know this is  very imprecise ... assumptions are fraught with peril but I would hope that even in the 50s or 60s the custodian for these records would have some obligation to have a reasonable secure file system.
many thanks! I sincerly doubt i will be able to identify the make model etc... any other way to get a handle on the general fire resistance?.

ANSWER: Peter,

That's an easy one!   Older cabinets and containers have usually had the doors and/or drawers slammed countless times, either on purpose or by accident.   The insulation of many of these containers is like the back bone of the construction - similar to your skeleton.   It gives the container is stiffness and rigidity.   The outer skin is a very thin sheet metal encasement, providing very little actual structural integrity, only designed to hold the insulation.   Many containers do not have an interior skin, having the insulation exposed.

Over the years, with age and abuse, the insulation cracks, breaks and wears out.   Every crack in the insulation is an entry point for heat in a fire.

It can be difficult to impossible to examine, thoroughly every surface of these containers for cracks, and some may not be visible.   It is also NOT financially feasible to reinsulate these containers, and repairs can not be guaranteed.

Bottom line is that containers at or over 50 years old are NEVER considered to meet current standards, and should always be suspect, as to the protection they offer this has NOTHING to do with the fire - THAT my friend is a different story.

Fire resistance of ANY container is based on "IT's" ability to keep the INTERIOR temperature below 350 degrees F, for a given period of time.   The reason that 350 degrees F was chosen is that papers and documents char around 412 degrees F and actually combust at 451 degrees F.   If the container does NOT keep the interior below 350 degrees, you can pretty well be assured that your stuff is going to be consumed.
Unfortunately NOT every container is tested.   Manufacturers submit samples at regular intervals to testing agencies like UL.   UL has a "standardized" testing method that the container HAS TO PASS before it will receive a label.   All of the containers built by that manufacture for THAT given time period (until the next sample/testing) are authorized to have a UL label installed, indicating the level of resistance the sample successfully passed.

Note:  There are other testing agencies besides UL.   SMNA (Safe Manufacturers National Association (1925-1964)), private testing agencies as well as Asian and European testing agencies.   Not all tests are equal and some testing companies are better than others, but the bottom line is that the containers interior temperature could not exceed 350 degrees F for the period tested.   Where concerns arise from testing is based on the trial heat of the oven.  For instance if one agency tests at 1700 degrees F for the period indicated and another agency tests at 1100 degrees F, ARE the two containers considered equal???   Well, the answer is yes and no.    Obviously anyone with a brain in their head would agree that one suffered more severe testing, and by passing it would be the superior model, however the majority of consumers simply leave their brains at home when they go shopping.   They don't take things like this into consideration, simply looking at the "PRICE" of the item rather than the quality.
THIS ESPECIALLY goes for government and educational facilities.   Spending money to buy quality items, when that money can go for teacher's salaries instead has always been the priority.   They generally buy quantity vs quality, and the majority of the filing systems that they use have no fire resistance what so ever.

Now back to the fires.  Generally speaking a container tested in an oven, at a specified temperature (even the lower one), is basically getting the full effect of the temperature, on all six sides, for the period tested.
In an actual fire, this is far from what actually happens.   Heat rises, so while the heat at the ceiling could easily be in the 900 to 1500 degree range, the heat on the floor may only be around 150-200 degrees.    So the container will (or could be) subjected to varying temperatures for the amount of time it is exposed.   Many safes that we see coming out of house fires have severe burning on the upper half, with little to no damage on the lower half.   Many times the paint on the lower half is hardly charred.   Usually what we find inside the container tends to be more water damage than heat damage.

As to the question of "How long will the container be exposed in a fire"?   That is always the toughest question, and my answer is that "YOU" need to assume that the fire department is not going to respond!!!
Fires happening in the middle of the night often go undetected for hours before the fire department is alerted.   Last year I had to open a safe for a man in the mountains above Sonora, CA.   He lived so far back that he had to provide the fire department with a map of the roads to his property, incase they had to respond.   When his house did catch fire, in the middle of the night, the fire department could get close enough to see the fire, but could NOT figure out the roads to actually get to the fire.   While they had a helicopter in use, IT was more involved in keeping the forest from burning so that the house was a total loss.   The ONLY thing left standing in the middle of the rubble was the mans safe, and fortunately for him he had the best that he could buy - a four hour data safe, tested to keep the interior below 150 degrees F in a fire.   The outside of the safe suffered severe damage, the handle and dial of the safe had melted off.   The interior looked almost new, with no charring or even smoke damage.

Ok, my last, last comment - FIRES are totally indiscriminate and it doesn't care WHAT you throw in front of it, they are pretty much all consuming.   With Murphy's law and everything going against you, you CANNOT guarantee WHAT the response time, or even level of response of the fire department is going to be at any moment, so to be prudent YOU have to assume that, for whatever reason, they will not be able to respond to YOUR fire.    Having a container that WILL protect your stuff is not a guess or trying to make assumptions about its ability, its about KNOWING that you are buying the best that you can get.    After the fire is NOT the time to second guess your purchase!!!

Hope I've answered and explained the reasoning behind older vs newer containers, the testing and fire resistance.   If you have other questions, I would be more than happy to address them as well.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: holy cow- you know your stuff!!!! the internet is amazing isn't it? ok last one . does a older file cabinet necessarily offer less protection than a newer one. This has to do with older models- lets say from the 40s 50s 60s and 70s. if you were to pick a "average" file cabinet that a school might use during this time and one that was not damaged  do you think the contents would survive a fire that did not engulf an entire house and didnt burn for many hrs. again I know this is very very general but with your experience would a file cabinet(locking )  its contents or not hit the burn temperature. any ideas of how I could dig more into the standard at various times- 60s 70s etc.does Smna test file cabinets or is that just safes?
Indebted to you for the intel- many thanks


You must have missed the part where I indicated that "as you cannot inspect all of the insulation of older cabinets", "they will ALL be considered to NOT meet ANY standards, regardless of who tested them".   The cut off "as a minimum" is 50 years, though I've seen many younger containers which (for various reasons) also no longer meet any standards.

SMNA tested fire and burglary resistive safes, file cabinets and fire resistive vault doors.   NOTHING with an SMNA label meets any current standards.

As far as your "digging" into the standards - the only ones that matter are the current standards.

Concerning your question about a container possibly surviving a fire which did not engulf the entire house or burn for many hours - this question indicates that you are probably one of those foolish people that thinks the lottery is going to hit them, every week.    I'm not sure HOW you think that you could control or even know WHAT area of a house might not burn, or what parts of the house might not be burned for significant periods of time.

I have to open safes in homes that have burned at least once a month, sometimes more often, and have yet to see a house that didn't have significant burn damage.   A good example is the Oakland hills/Berkeley fire of 1991.

Almost 4000 homes, apartments and condominiums burned to the ground.   How many of those home owners thought that they would ONLY suffer a small or restricted area fire???   Fire is indiscriminate and if the fire departments could guess how any fire would react in any given home, I'm sure it would make there job easier, however it doesn't.

While the fire departments DO try to make the fires easier to put out by lowering its over all temperature by cutting holes in the roof or knocking out windows (heat rises), this also provides the fire with more oxygen, allowing the fire to actually consume more of the house.   In many cases with lower level windows broken out, and holes in the roof, this creates a chimney effect allowing the fire to actually consume the house at a faster rate.

BOTTOM LINE:   Just like gambling in Las Vegas has risks, the way that you protect valuables also has risks.   A prudent person tries to mitigate those risks.   Making bets on items that give you the BEST odds, lowers your risk - Betting on Red or Black, and/or odd or even give you a 50/50 risk.   Hopefully your security decisions will give you better odds than 50/50.

Having ANY TYPE of fire resistance is better than leaving your documents on the kitchen table, but the standards are based on standards.   The minimum standard is a current model - 1 hour fire resistive container.   NOTE that I said MINIMUM standard.    Anything less than 1 hour of fire resistance or a current model container is "SUB-STANDARD", and anything MORE than 1 hour and/or a current model would be "SUPER-STANDARD".

If you elect to utilize a fire resistive container from the 1950's through the 70's you are utilizing a container that is BELOW the minimum standard.   

Just like any other purchase YOU will have to decide what is going to be best for you.   Unlike buying a stereo - if you don't like the sound you can take it back.    You cannot decide to get a new better fire resistive safe, AFTER a fire!   You get exactly ONE chance to make a good decision.

Hope this helps - and quit playing the lottery!   LOL

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Terry V. Andreasen (Andy)


Safe and Vault related Questions; Antique Safe Repair and Restoration; With over 44 years in the Safe & Vault industry, if I can't answer your question I know where to get the answer. Current Project: Restoration of an Ely Norris Cannonball Safe from the early 1900's. Will answer Safe & Vault related questions concerning age, value, restoration, moving, opening & repairing, parts, operation and history. Note: It is not my intention to teach you to open safes or to provide information which may aid in the unlawful opening of a safe. I will not give out drill points or information which I deem inappropriate.


44 years in the Safe & Vault Industry. Owner and Service Manager for one of the largest Safe & Vault companies on the West Coast. Graduate of Lockmasters Safe Lock Servicing, Safe lock Manipulation and Safe Deposit Lock Courses. Graduate of Locksmith Institute. Author of "The Coffee Table Guide to Antique Safes". Certified Instructor for the California Locksmith Association teaching Basic and Advanced Lock Servicing, Basic Safe opening and Repairing. Factory Trained by AMSEC, LORD Safes, LeFebure, Mosler, KabaMas, LaGard and Sargent & Greenleaf

Safecrackers International and the National Antique Safe Association Safe & Vault Technicians Association

The Coffee Table Guide to Antique Safes

Graduate of Locksmith Institute 1972 Graduate Lockmasters Safe Lock Servicing 1974 Graduate Lockmasters Safe Lock Manipulation 1975 Graduate Lockmasters Safe Deposit Lock Servicing 1985 Instructor Certified - California Locksmith Association - 1985 Factory trained by AMSEC, MAJOR, STAR, Johnson-Pacific, Kaba-MAS, Allied-Gary, ISM, Lord, Brown Safe, EXL, Mosler, Diebold.

Awards and Honors
2009 - 2015 Listed in AllExperts top 50 Experts. All Experts Categories - Safes & Security Containers, Locksmithing, Antique Safes. Retired US Army Chief Warrant Officer (CW4), with 39 years of total service. With numerous awards from Vietnam, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. US Navy - 1971-1981 US Army Reserve 1984-2013 US Army Retired

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US Secret Service, FBI, BATF, Local Law enforcment agencies, Diebold, Hamilton Pacific, Red Hawk Int., Chubb International, Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank, Mechanics Bank, El Dorado Savings Bank, many Credit unions and smaller banks. McDonalds, Togos, BurgerKing, TacoBell, Carls Jr. FoodMaxx, SaveMart, Lucky's, Albertson's, Raley's, Safeway, NobHill, Bell Markets, PW Markets. Great America, Century Theatres, Cinemark Theatres, UA Cinemas, and many homeowners and small businesses. Provide warranty service for lock and safe manufactures. Service area is Northern California - Fresno to Oregon, including western Nevada

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