The big issue for trades: Tools, theft and security

IN-DEPTH: Tool theft continues to be a significant problem, whether it’s from vans, shops or even trade events. Peter Brett looks at the issue and finds out how FFX, a leading trades and DIY-focused tool show, protects the millions of pounds of tools it brings together…

I don’t want to hark back to some golden age before tool theft became ‘serious’ because I suppose there has always been theft and pilfering on building sites. Twenty years ago, some trades I spoke to have told me that theft was the reason why they didn’t bother to invest in expensive tools. They simply bought cheap ones that were built to slightly outlast the guarantee, and if they were nicked, well they were charged to the job and you simply bought a new one.

That argument doesn’t hold as much water these days because even though the most basic own brand tools are very well priced, the demands of efficient and quick work require at least a basic power tool kit that may cost a few hundred. For specialist work that bill rises to a lot more. Recently, I calculated the cost of the tools in my tool boxes on site at a shade over £1,200 for a simpleish kitchen fitting job. If they were stolen I would be in quite a pickle. In the workshop the cost of my Domino Jointer and associated dust extractor alone, exceeds the above by some margin.

It is therefore clear that one of the main reasons why tools are so attractive to thieves is that they are valuable and very saleable. I can’t be the only one who has been tempted by a ‘bargain’ at a car boot sale or open air market. Bargain hunting is part of the problem – if all honest users refused to buy from these sources then maybe the bottom would fall out of the market, or at the very least, weaken it substantially.

The Focus

Currently the trades are soliciting signatures on a petition to raise awareness and pass possible legislation about measures to deal with tool theft. But in a Brexit-obsessed Parliament I guess MPs have not taken much notice and not much is likely to happen in the next year or so – possibly longer.

It was a visit to the FFX Tool Show earlier this year that got me thinking about other aspects of tool security and also about how users, retailers and manufacturers could be helping in the fight.

The FFX Show is, by definition, a concentration of valuable tools, and other kit, in one place. I am sure that the cost of the stock on display and behind the scenes must run into a couple of million quid, so it would seem sensible to ensure that a range of security measures would need to be in place. So, I donned my investigative reporter’s hat and asked FFX to give me an insider view of what measures could be taken. What follows is not a comprehensive thieves’ guide on how to overcome security systems at a tool show because FFX, and other show organisers, have systems in place that are not widely publicised for obvious reasons.

It All Starts with the Parking

Parking areas seem to be a favourite spot for theft. There is nothing quite like a horde of white vans parked out of sight of passers by that offer a temptation to potential thieves. The car park at Ally Pally is one such place – nicely screened by trees and a long walk up a steep hill to get to the show.

The car parks at the Kent Showground venue for the FFX show are much better oriented for security. They are more open and clearly divided into parking areas and access roads. FFX has decided to divide parking into two sections – one for the visitors and one for the exhibitors. This division has a couple of advantages. The more secure fenced area for exhibitors is some distance from the visitors’ parking, so anyone in the exhibitors’ parking would need a wristband and would be subject to checks from the assigned parking marshals.

The organisation of the visitors’ parking is also closely marshalled by experienced people who have been well briefed on what to look out for, so sight lines and parking areas are strictly maintained to ensure that no little weaknesses creep in. It may not appear so, but subtle vigilance is the order of the day and anyone looking suspicious and staggering under the weight of a few tool cases might be the target of some questions.

Inside the Show

When it comes to security, it’s all about feet on the ground, this is what FFX had to say: “We take security at the show very seriously. Significant numbers of security guards are employed across the preparations for the show, throughout the duration of the show and until the halls are cleared after the show. 24- hour plain-clothed security guards are also in place. But the security guards are not the only people involved with this. We have over 100 members of our own staff who work during the show and who are briefed on how to keep vigilant and what to do if they spot anything of concern. Cash in tills is kept to a minimum and each supplier exhibiting at the show also keeps an eye on their own stands.”

A further dimension to security is the payment system. Lots of money changes hands during the show, and unless the system for dealing with it is robust, there could be issues. FFX has a sophisticated system as the answer below shows:

“The process customers must go through for buying products at the show is also designed to minimise theft. Payment can only be made at an FFX till with no payments taken on the trade stands. Customer receipts are also designed so that they communicate to the personnel on each trade stand exactly what has been purchased, when it was paid for and carries a carefully designed sign off process that ensures that goods can only be redeemed once. We then have security in place again on the exit to the show where customers have to provide proof of purchase for any goods they are carrying out of the building.”

I would also point out the system that FFX uses to collect bulk purchases as another plus point. Visitors are encouraged to collect their purchases just before they leave. For those with armfuls of kit, a trolley system, manned by FFX staff, collects the goods and takes them to the exit. Here the goods are checked again and visitors can bring their vehicles right up to the exit to enable easy loading. The system has the double benefit of being very helpful for visitors as well as being secure and discouraging the dishonest by applying another layer of scrutiny.

FFX is only too aware of the growing problem of tool theft and had these comments to make. They are based on observation and experience as well as discussions with the trades who visit FFX shops regularly.

“Theft from vans and building sites is a growing problem. Tools cannot be left out in the open and unattended at any time – particularly overnight. Evidence of the need for caution on behalf of tradesmen comes in the form of the huge growth in the sale of secure storage units (e.g. Sealey, Draper and Armorgard). The value of power tools in particular, is clearly not insignificant and makes them highly sought after by both criminal gangs and opportunists. Fortunately, CCTV and construction cameras are both commonly found now across sites and the cost of such equipment has dramatically decreased over the last ten years, making them easily accessible and affordable for tradesmen and site supervisors. Many power tools are now also using Bluetooth technology to disable them, making them useless to thieves.”

It seems as though the thieves are also getting bolder and well informed about their victims’ habits. FFX reports that:- “One tradesman’s van was recently broken into in Kent directly outside the owner’s bungalow’s bedroom window. Putting signs on vans saying ‘No tools are left in this vehicle overnight’ may make a thief think twice and many tradesmen are now resorting to not advertising their trade on their vans anymore, as this communicates very clearly to a potential thief what sort of tools may be found on the inside. Parking vehicles with their rear doors adjacent to brick walls is a simple deterrent that workmen can employ to add protection for their tools.”

The Future?

Looking into my crystal ball I can’t see that any new legislation will be on the statute books any time soon, but the result of a Brexit – either hard or soft – might be that power tools, in particular, become more expensive – and more desirable.

I think there might be more mileage to be gained from involving insurance companies (look at Festool’s insurance offer for example) and developing some of the tracking and disabling methods that are currently being trialled. These systems need further development to be truly effective – if thieves can steal a marked and monitored JCB and somehow get it to Eastern Europe then it’s clear we can still do better.

What Users Can Do

As individuals, we can permanently mark our tools, register them after purchase, note serial numbers, photograph them, and lastly, invest in a robust steel tool chest bolted to a floor that would provide a deterrent for a thief who wants to be in and out quickly. And keep an eye out for blokes in the pub and at car boot sales – that might be your cordless combi on the table. With proof of ownership via a serial number it might be possible to prosecute!

There’s more on the wider tool theft problem here. And you can read more from Peter Brett on