What to Know
- An October 2018 NBC Bay Area investigation found many safes marketed as 'fireproof' can still melt in a fire
- Our reporting led to changes at FireKing, one of the nation's top safe manufacturers
- Consumers should look for the UL logo and fire rating when buying a safe
How safe is your safe in a fire?
In October 2018, our NBC Bay Area Responds team investigated melting safes reported by North Bay wildfire victims -- even though many safes are advertised as "fireproof".
Now, a top safe manufacturer has responded to our reporting with a change in its marketing policy.
We took our concerns east to the company that patented the first "fireproof" safe. We visited its factory, watched as it set a safe on fire and changed almost a century of history.
FireKing Security Group invited NBC Bay Area to visit its manufacturing plant in New Albany, Indiana -- just across the state line from Louisville, Kentucky, along the Ohio River. There, the company manufactures safes, vaults, file cabinets and other secure storage products.
Gary Weisman, president of FireKing International, says his team works hard to uphold its reputation.
"We've got 110 people in the plant," Weisman said. "We run four days a week, 10 hours a day."
All that effort makes safes, chests and cabinets intended to survive an inferno. It's FireKing's specialty, and the company has advertised it that way for decades.
"It's been called 'fireproof' for so long," Weisman said.
A FireKing predecessor patented the first "fireproof" safe in 1919. FireKing has used the term ever since. But it won't for much longer.
Last year, NBC Bay Area revealed how the term "fireproof" might be misleading. North Bay fire victims like Mike Cobb learned that the hard way, when their "fireproof" safes melted.
"Both of them just completely disintegrated," Cobb said.
Those revelations reverberated in Indiana. Weisman saw our report and learned the term "fireproof" is meaningless for most of us.
"It's a manufacturer's label," Weisman said. "Nobody's testing it."
Now, after almost 100 years of saying "fireproof," Weisman has committed to pull the term from FireKing's advertising.
"After watching your story, we have decided we will go to 'fire resistant' and not say 'fireproof,'" Weisman said.
Future customers will be told how many hours their safe is fire resistant, based on independent lab tests. We asked Weisman if the rest of the safe industry should follow suit.
"They should," he said. "At the end of the day, if the customer is being misled, you've got to make it right."
Other major safe sellers, including Amazon, Walmart and Home Depot, use the word "fireproof." We shared our research and asked if they'll pull the term. None responded to us.
If you think the lingo doesn't matter, FireKing arranged an eye-opening demonstration.
Two "fireproof" products were subjected to what's known as a Class 73 fire test. A gun safe and a file cabinet were placed in a huge on-site furnace. The heat quickly soared to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, about 500 degrees hotter than a typical house fire.
After just four minutes, an early result: "The gun safe has already failed," Weisman said, pointing at a temperature gauge.
When workers opened the furnace 30 minutes later, the "fireproof" gun safe itself was on fire.
After a few minutes of cooling outside the factory, inconsistency was on full display. The "fireproof" file cabinet's exterior was badly charred, but paper inside survived the heat blast. The "fireproof" gun safe, however, fell apart when opened, its contents completely destroyed.
Two products labeled "fireproof" -- just one survivor.
"This is not good for our industry," Weisman said. "We hate to see this."
Weisman wants his industry to use labels consumers can trust. We asked if the U.S. government should require it.
"We would not be opposed to it," he said. "That would stop people from buying these and losing everything."
Weisman recommends you look for the "UL" logo on a safe. Underwriters Laboratories, or UL, runs independent tests on consumer products. Its ratings should tell you how fire-resistant a safe is. If you're unsure, ask the manufacturer.
Also, ask if there's any kind of guarantee. Many safes do carry one. If so, take photos of your safe and its contents now. Then, save those files digitally, in case the safe fails.