When the proverbial excrement hits the fan, you don’t want to be in its path. To avoid danger in a life-threatening emergency scenario, you may need to be able to break into or out of a restricted location without drawing attention to your actions — in the security world, this is known as surreptitious entry and exit.

Usually, individuals with experience in this this skill set are either criminals or those who have a professional career-driven need for these specialized skills — locksmiths, security analysts, or MacGyver impersonators. Familiarizing yourself with surreptitious entry and exit can get you out of hot water in a hurry, but beware, as these techniques could also get you into that same hot water if used without discretion.

Editor’s Note: These techniques are for emergency purposes only, and should never be used unless you're trying to get to safety in a life-and-death situation. Be sure to research and follow all local and federal laws, and respect private property. Don't do anything stupid or illegal with this information — if you do, we're not responsible.

Surreptitious Exit – Breaking Out

Hypothetical Scenario: Active Shooter in a Hospital

You’re at a hospital the next county over visiting a close friend who just had his first-born son. As far as the layout and points of egress, they are completely foreign to you.

You’re in the cafeteria on the first floor of the hospital, when suddenly a panicked voice comes over the intercom. The voice repeats that an Emergency Code Silver is occurring in the Orange Zone, and that all patients, employees, and guests must shelter in place and lock themselves in the nearest room. Code Silver — you recall that this means a violent individual with a weapon.

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On your way into the hospital, you noticed charts on hall doors showing the zone designation for each area, and the code key. But before you have the chance to find out where you are, you hear shots. Worst of all, you just so happened to be unarmed, so there’s no question in your mind that evasion is priority number one.

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It seems that the Code Silver had been called in by someone who spotted the gunman before he began shooting. Feeling trapped, and hearing the shots coming closer, you find shelter in a nearby closet. Thankfully, the gunman passes your location and proceeds through the cafeteria, which is located centrally on the first floor.

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Not knowing where to go, you proceed into the hallway where the shooter had just committed his acts of violence, and see multiple individuals with fatal GSWs. You also catch a glance of what appears to be a second shooter near the hall that leads to the lobby and parking lot. Knowing that you’ll have to take an alternate way out, it’s time to think quickly.

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Surveying the area, you spot a deceased staff member’s RFID badge, designated with name and job title. Knowing you have to exfil quickly and quietly to avoid alerting the shooters, you plan on snatching whichever badge can get you through the highest number of secure doors, thereby creating space between you and the shooters. Then you’ll need to find an alternate egress route.

Lessons Learned: Surreptitious Exit

So, what can we learn from this hypothetical surreptitious exit scenario? Consider the following tips and takeaways.

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1. Social Engineering and Physical Security

  • If possible, find badges of those with the highest clearance privileges. Security, maintenance, and facilities staff members are usually safe bets. Food service workers, receptionists, and office workers are not likely to have access to secure areas.

    Biometric readers will deny entry if they're contaminated with blood or grime.

    Biometric readers will deny entry if they're contaminated with blood or grime. Avoid these systems when possible.

  • Avoid two- or three-factor authentication readers. Even if you are able to use the fingerprint of an unconscious person, biometrics can be skewed by grime and blood. Avoid biometric scanners at all costs, and stick with single-factor doors where you can simply swipe a badge to enter.
  • If you have no other option, and the badge/ID has the individuals D.O.B, you may get lucky with two-factor card+PIN readers by entering their birth date as the required pin. Also consider trying common PINs such as 1234, or 0000. It’s worth a shot in a pinch.

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2. Emergency Pull Stations

Usually red or blue, these can be handy to unlock doors that drop power during an emergency. However, if a facility has its security system set to “fail secure” rather than “fail safe”, the door will stay secure and only allow egress. Also keep in mind that these are often on the secure side of the door, which could require some sort of secondary plan, like getting another individual to activate the station, or reaching through broken glass in the door to drop power.

Pull stations (blue)

  • Most likely labeled as “emergency exit”, “police” or “security”
  • Stations don’t always have an audible alarm, but beware if they do. It could give away your position.
  • If there is an audible alarm, it can likely be masked by wrapping clothes around the pull station, or damaging the small exposed speaker.

Pull stations (red)

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  • Almost always a fire alarm
  • In situations where silence is key, never initiate red pull stations unless you are ready for panic to ensue, or to risk exposure.
  • It’s more likely that this option will drop all power to the door and allow both egress and ingress. However, this is not always the case.

Watch the employees – they’re more familiar with the facility than you are.

  • You may find an exit for employees only, or a safe area to shelter in place.
  • If you aren’t alone, work together. The employees may know where the CCTV feed is, which could provide valuable information to help you locate the threat and avoid it to get out alive.

Surreptitious Entry – Breaking In

Slyly entering a secure facility isn’t something most ordinary people would ever consider. Unfortunately, it’s something that you may have to think about if you’re faced with a scenario similar to the following one. When there’s nowhere else to go, surreptitious entry into a secure location could save your life.

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Use this thought process to better understand the infiltration aspect of making entry unnoticed. And again, these techniques are for emergency purposes only, and should never be used unless you're trying to get to safety in a life-and-death situation. Be sure to research and follow all local and federal laws, and respect private property. Don't do anything stupid or illegal with this information — if you do, we're not responsible.

Hypothetical Situation: Caught in a Tornado

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After being summoned home from work to care for your sick spouse, you’re greeted in the parking lot with sheets of pouring rain. The weather had been worsening all afternoon, and you had been watching the downpour from your office window. What you hadn’t noticed was the rash of tornado warning alerts popping up on your cell phone. Luckily, the continuous vibrating prompted you to take a look as you were driving home.

As you continue your 40-minute drive, the emergency alert buzzer blares over your radio, issuing a shelter-in-place order for the county that you just entered. The news only gets worse — it should be hitting you within the next 10 minutes.

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Even though you don’t necessarily live in tornado alley, small tornadoes occur yearly in your area. This is enough of a lesson for you to obey the order, especially since you see the sky circling aggressively above. Just as it starts looking like a scene from the movie Twister, you decide to park your car and take shelter at the next sturdy building you see. Unfortunately, the desolate rural farming area has left you with limited options for shelter. All you can find is a small brick building in an unmanned yet heavily-secured electrical substation. It’s much better than your other options of a dilapidated barn or staying in your vehicle on the road.

Recalling that substations are unmanned is a welcome thought, because no human intervention will prevent you from gaining access. However, it’s almost as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Electrical substations are typically heavily-guarded in terms of physical security due to their connection to the national grid. Physical systems inside of electrical substations, if accessed and hacked, could be used as a gateway toward crippling sections of the national grid.

As you pull into the small gravel parking lot, you realize that regardless of the situation at hand, you could still get in hot water with law enforcement for finding your way into a substation. At the same time, your life may be in jeopardy, so it’s time to proceed with caution and be ready to justify your decision if authorities arrive.

You notice the abundance of CCTV cameras around the perimeter of the substation, but rather than worrying about them, you feel relieved. If anyone questions your motives and actions, the cameras will provide evidence to back up your immediate safety concerns about the tornado. Even if you wanted to spare yourself the headaches of getting caught on camera, you don't have any time to spare, so you ignore their presence and focus on the facility's physical security.

Before exiting your vehicle, you take stock of the items you’ll need to make an entry, and figure out your timeline. You only have a few minutes to infiltrate or face the storm, so keeping this simple is the only way to make it out alive.

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You grab some screwdrivers, a pocket knife, a small ball peen hammer, a dollar store ratchet set, and a wire coat hanger that your spare shirt was was hanging on. Finding a way to defeat the chain link fence — rather than going over it and looking like you were attacked by piranhas — is quite the challenge. Instead of picking a fight with the concertina wire, you decide you’re going to go right through the fencing.

Your lack of heavy-duty cutting tools won’t be a problem. It’s just as easy (and often more expedient) to circumvent all security measures and disassemble the corner post of the perimeter fence. In most cases, you can use a basic ratchet set to loosen connectors at the corner post on the secure side, and use body weight to pry the fencing and tension band from the post. This will allow just enough room to sneak through. The positive side of this is that you’ve done zero damage to the fencing itself.

On the other side of the fence, things start to look tougher. The door is a heavy, fire-rated steel door with card access. Hoping for a stroke of luck, you try the handle to see if it’s unlocked. No success there. Damn. Fumbling around for your gas rewards card, you next check if swiping any card will bypass the electronic lock set. Again, no luck.

The wind starts to pick up and debris is flying everywhere. If there’s any time to figure this out, it’s now. You figure you have about two or three minutes remaining. You notice the card reader, and realize that there must be a hole in the wall for wire to run to the other side of the block.

Quickly unscrewing the entry reader confirms your assumption. You can see light and another reader on the opposite side, so you punch it out with the butt of the hammer handle. Once the reader is out of the way, you can snake the unraveled coat hanger through and work the handle. After a few attempts, voilà, you’re in! You re-mount the outbound reader to plug the hole, seek shelter, and wait it out. Once the storm passes, you plan to call law enforcement and explain the situation — it'll probably go over better than leaving the scene and forcing them to track you down for breaking and entering.

Lessons Learned: Surreptitious Entry

1. Situational Awareness

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  • Locate Motion Sensors/CCTV Cameras. These are red flags to criminals, but in an emergency, corroborating evidence may be the only thing that keeps you out of a courtroom later.
  • Take stock of the facility before selecting your tools, and don’t carry more than what you need.
  • Grab as many useful entry tools as possible before leaving your safe area.
  • Move quickly, but don't rush too much. Adrenaline can really mess up your fine motor skills, and panicking will skew your thinking. This will only slow you down and put you at risk. Staying calm while managing your time efficiently is the key.
  • Prioritize. Will entering a structure take longer than continuing on to a different, less secure building?

2. Outside Physical Security

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  • If there are single-factor pin pads to gain access to doors, try simple codes involving sequential numbers and repeat numbers. Codes are usually 4-, 5-, or 6-digit, and are often followed by the “#” key.
  • Check to make sure that doors are actually locked! It’s surprising how often even the most secure facilities don’t bother to arm perimeter doors.
  • Think outside the box. Going over a fence, or cutting through it may be the most obvious way to infiltrate, but what about dismantling part of it to go around it? If you can sneak your wrench through the fence and turn the bolt on the secure side, it can take a few minutes, but should guarantee you access.
  • Card readers always have holes or electrical boxes behind them, no matter how small. Brick walls will always have a hole straight through to either conduit or another reader. This is a secure door’s weakest point to anyone who can’t bypass a lock.
  • Not exactly surreptitious, but brute force can work! The last thing you want to do is damage someone else’s property, but if it’s a life or death situation don’t hesitate to use some good ol’ elbow grease! Whether you’re kicking, prying, or ramming a door, hitting it just right near the handle can sometimes jar it enough to make entry.

About the Author

Jim Henry is a physical security and surveillance expert who has spent all of his adult life working to keep people out of places they shouldn’t be, and locating individuals who need to be found. Prior to his current employment in the private sector, where he works as a government contractor, Henry was a Surveillance Investigator for The Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, PA. He also worked in Erie, PA in a similar role. Before that, Henry was busy building a diverse portfolio of education, studying countersurveillance, critical infrastructure protection, and threat detection. Even though most of his current work remains secret, Henry is very vocal about his love for firearms, writing, EDC gear, hiking with his dog, and spending time with his family.

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