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Secure and Down a Salt Mine: An Interview with Underground Vaults’ Jeff Ollenburger

Underground Vaults

W: Now, I know that you were talking about the single point of entry and how it’s as secure as possible unless the Mole Men show up or something…has anyone ever tried to break into one of these mine facilities?

JO: Not to our knowledge, no.

W: They could attempt it and you’d never even know. You’d be like, “What? Did you hear something?” “No…”

[ad#rightpost]JO: There’s so many layers of security just to get into the building where the elevator is controlled–and I’m speaking of the Hutchinson facility specifically, it’s a locked-down facility with video monitors and access code ID and things of that nature, and then trying to figure out how to run the hoist if you actually got into the right area would be nearly impossible, and then there’s a series of gates and locked passageways that you’d have to pass through with padlocks and swipe cards that you couldn’t get through, and then the last line of defense is that if you got into our facility and you were faced with looking at 50 acres of storage, where would you even go and what would you know to look for? And you can’t walk anywhere–it’s so big that you’d have to try to find transportation underground to get there.

W: So transportation underground….do you guys have electric golf carts or something down there? How do you guys get around?

JO: Correct. We have a whole arsenal of electric golf carts, bicycles, tractors…a little bit of everything to move material around and move people around.

W: Bikes…your staff is probably pretty fit, I would think. Cycling around 50 acres.

JO: There’s a lot of biking that goes on underground…it’s probably a little less than the Tour de France, but I think some of them feel like it’s just as long.

W: And I read on the website that the actual administrative offices are not in the mine anymore, so we’re not speaking with you in the mine right now, correct?

JO: That’s correct. We’re a few miles away, and it just…the corporate office being separate allows for a little more consistent communication with our other locations. When you’re underground, it’s easy to get out into the acreage and not be as accessible.

W: That’s got to be a bit of a challenge…you’ve going to have staff there, so I’m sure they probably have phone access and internet access and stuff like that, so that’s got to be fun to run T-1 lines down there and stuff.

JO: It’s definitely a whole city under there…you have all the necessary business tools that you have to run a company from internet and telephone and everything….the only thing we can’t do underground is receive cell phone signals, so cell phones don’t work, so it’s a great place to get away if you want to disappear for a while.

W: (laughs) “I was at the mine (wink, wink)….you know I was, you couldn’t reach me. I was in acre 32 biking around.”

JO: Right.

W: So you’re a few miles away…so I’m assuming if whatever Bad Thing you’d want to throw into the scenario–I’m not sure if you guys what tornadoes you get out there (I’m from Huntsville, Alabama where it’s Tornado Alley)–but I’m assuming if something bad was coming down the pike that you guys would probably leave the office and head to the mine.

JO: Well, our corporate office has a reinforced basement, so we would probably just go to the basement here. We are certainly in our own version of Tornado Alley here in the Midwest, but even like our clients, we have our own off-site and backup business continuity plans as well, and we test those frequently, we do disaster training; our clients can’t wait for us to come back online if we get hit by an unforeseen event, so we make sure we’re ready and can be back and operational instantaneously.

W: So it sounds like they’re very secure facilities, nobody could get in there; the temperature and humidity are good, and obviously it would take something tremendous to get down there….is there anything that the facilities can’t protect against other than somebody forgetting to send you something so you can sit on it and keep it safe?

JO: (pause) I’m sure someone could draw up a far-fetched scenario, but I’m not sure what that would be.

W: I mean, I did mention Mole Men before, but I mean, you know…

JO: Short of interplanetary invasion, I’m not sure.

W: So in the movie 2012 then all bets would be off, but otherwise, it’s pretty much nailed down, it sounds like.

JO: I would think there’d be few safer places on the planet than to be underground in our salt mine.

W: Well, if things get really bad, then I’ll be sure to look you guys up. And I’ll pack a lunch.

JO: You might be looking for the line….I think there might be a group of people.

W: That’s true–you guys might find yourselves in “The Monsters Are Due Maple Street”…that Twilight Zone episode where the one house on the street had the bomb shelter and everybody was trying to work their way in. So you guys might be unfortunately popular in the wrong circumstance.

JO: Well, we’ve certainly done some storage and some planning on the civil defense side dating back to our earliest days through the Cold War, and our Louisville facility is located in a mine that was one of the largest civil defense locations in the United States, so the concept of going underground for safety and security is certainly not new; we just have some ideal facilities that thankfully have only been needed for records and archival storage and not to keep any people safe.

W: And that’s good too, because I’m sure somewhere, maybe even in Louisville, they have those MREs dating back from the sixties that actually are probably still good.

JO: I wouldn’t be interested in testing out the freshness of them, but I’m sure they would be edible.

W: Well, Jeff, is there anything else that you, being the expert on this subject, think we haven’t covered?

JO: Well, I think the element of our business that we like people to know is that we have worldwide clients and we can service the world through all of our locations. We have our own national courier service, controlled trucking service, and then we work with certainly all the major shipping carriers to move documents and key information back and forth. So whoever’s reading this, no matter where they are, there’s a good chance we’ve got some folks from their neck of the woods with some items here, so it’s not unreasonable to think that this would be an ideal location for them.

W: Now I saw that you’ve got your facilities here in North America–if you’ve got worldwide clients, have you ever broached the subject of finding a mine on the other side of the world somewhere and starting a branch elsewhere, in another country?

JO: We’ve certainly explored that and have looked at it with more than just a passing glance, it’s just the economics of it never worked out the way that we thought it might need to. So it’s certainly on the drawing board if the need continues to present itself. Right now we’ve been able to handle those clients through our own facilities and have not had too many issues with that.

W: And I know you talked about the best way of trying to get across what you guys have there…do you guys do tours of the facility that the public can come see the facility, or is it all locked down?

JO: Well, the interesting part of our facility is that there’s a separate organization that we’re affiliated with that operates as a museum. It comes down the same elevator hoist but then it gets separated at the bottom of the lift and they go one direction before having to pass through the series of gates and locks. There’s a whole museum underground that’s devoted to…mostly the salt mining industry, but there is some mention in the museum of our business and what we do and why it’s unique to the salt mine. So while we don’t give public tours of our facility (for obvious reasons), there is kind of a small taste of what we do underground that a visitor can find in the museum.

W: Right. And you can at least get, as you were saying, a chance to glimpse, I guess, the scope of what’s going on down there.

JO: Yeah, the museum isn’t nearly as large and doesn’t cover near as much space, but a visitor would get an idea pretty quickly of what space looks like down there and how expansive the corridors and bays are.

W: Well, Jeff, this has been great. Thanks so much for your time.

JO: Absolutely.

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1968 civil defense image found here.
Salt mine image found here.
Mr. Freeze image found here.