To prevent robberies and improve the safety of its banking facilities, a unit of Mellon Bank Corp. is testing an advanced security system that controls entry into branches.

The system, called an access control unit, consists of an entry and exit corridor with double interlocking doors, bullet resistant glass, a device that detects the presence of weapons, and a camera that enables officials inside the bank to monitor people entering.

Manufactured by Puerto Rico-based Novacomm Inc., the system is being tried out at two Philadelphia branches of Mellon PSFS, a thrift subsidiary of the Pittsburgh-based banking company.

Mellon is the first U.S. bank to install the control units, which are widely used in Europe and Puerto Rico.

"We want to be at the vanguard of providing safe facilities for all of our customers and employees," said Paul S. Beideman, president of Mellon PSFS. "We have researched several safety options, and we believe this is the best system available today."

Customers who go to a branch with a control unit see a sign on an outer door instructing them to enter one at a time. An adult may also enter with a child.

When an individual enters the unit, the outer door automatically locks. The person proceeds a few steps to an interior door to enter the bank. When the interior door closes, the outer door releases, and the next customer can enter the unit.

Detector Blocks Armed Entry

If an armed individual attempts to enter the bank, the weapons-detection device sounds an alarm, and the interior door automatically locks, preventing entry. Bank officials then notify police.

If a customer such as a police officer carrying a weapon enters the unit and the alarm sounds, the corridor monitor can cancel the alarm and push a button to let the person through.

The access-control units are part of an overall security program instituted by Mellon to improve safety. According to Michael Foyle, director of corporate security at Mellon Bank Corp., "take-over" style robberies in the Philadelphia area have been on the increase over the last several years.

In 1993, bank robberies in the Philadelphia area totaled 201.

There were 32 robberies in 1993 throughout Mellon's entire branch network, which encompasses Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware; 21 of them were at Mellon PSFS, which serves 34 Pennsylvania countries.

These numbers may not indicate an epidemic, said Mr. Foyle. However, he added that "one robbery is one too many," particularly since bank robbers have gone from the "single notepasser" variety to more violent criminals.

Security Measures

As a result, the bank instituted a number of security measures, including a new proprietary alarm network, new cameras, dye packs, and the access-control units, which went into operation in March.

Feedback from customers has been favorable, said Mr. Beideman, the bank's president.

"In a customer survey, 92% of them said they welcomed the measures we were taking to increase safety," said Mr. Beideman. "Once they understood the system, and how quickly it worked, they felt better knowing it was in place."

The majority of customers also think the units are easy to use, said Mr. Foyle. Customers don't find the single-file entrance inconvenient, he said, because the doors open rapidly and keep people moving in and out smoothly. And since the sensitivity of the metal detectors has been gauged for guns and knives, they don't go off for belt buckles and other benign implements, he said.

Proactive Approach

The system is also advantageous because it takes a more active approach to crime, said Richard A. Zappile, chief inspector of the operations bureau in Philadelphia Police Department.

"Over the years, banks have developed a number of effective measures to combat robberies, including alarms, closed circuit cameras, bullet-resistant glass barriers, and dye packs, which help us catch criminals," he said.

"The Access Control Unit -- in conjunction with these measures -- makes our security efforts even more effective in preventing robberies from occurring in the first place."

The Mellon pilot will continue for the next several weeks, when bank officials will evaluate the results.

They will probably install additional units at select branches in the Philadelphia area, and eventually at other locations, said Mr. Foyle.

Mellon PSFS has about $37 billion in assets.

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