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Feature Article - January 2016

Safe & Secure

New Trends in Sports Facility Security & Safety

By Kelli Ra Anderson


From ID-checking software and social media monitoring to the latest in security cameras and metal detectors, the ways and means of keeping fitness facilities safe and secure are constantly changing. But security is about more than just the latest technological advances. It's also about effective risk management practices.

Thanks to a first-ever summit last year between the University of Southern Mississippi's National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NSC4) and the Security Industry Association (SIA), as well as studies by groups like the National Institute of Building Sciences, there is now more data, better strategies and more help available to sport facility managers than ever before.

More Heads Better Than One

One of the most obvious means for improving security and safety, however, is often one of the most overlooked by facility managers. Many sports facilities simply don't take advantage of the insights and expertise of those around them, such as other department staff, city and state agencies, and free federal training programs like FEMA's Emergency Management Institute or the Department of Homeland Security.

Together, armed with a multiplicity of experience and knowledge, facility managers are better equipped to identify problems and to create more effective strategies and implement sustainable solutions.

"Communication and collaboration are the most commonly identified problems in safety and security planning," said Elizabeth Voorhees, director with the NSC4.

Simply put, more heads are better than one.

Back to School

One forward-thinking high school, Carmel Clay High School in Carmel, Ind., however, is paving the way for others to see the benefit of the collaborative process to improve security and safety on their campuses. Carmel Clay is the first high school in the nation (joining a list of universities and professional sports venues) to earn the coveted NSC4's Sports Event Security Aware (or SESA) designation. According to Voorhees, the goal of SESA is to foster continual improvement in emergency planning.

The hope by those in the security industry is that more high schools will climb on board. With more than 8 million students participating in athletic programs and after-school events annually, and 336 million spectators enjoying those events, fears for safety, security and emergency response plans is greater than ever before. Concerned athletic administrators, who are faced with numerous difficulties in preparing for and managing sporting events, are making staff training a priority.

Typically, it is the high school coaches and teachers who are called on to assist with security and safety issues at high school events, such as watching entry and exit gates or helping to supervise in the stands. However, many of these supervisors, who have little to no training on the issues, don't fully appreciate the importance of their safeguarding roles. Add to that problem that most high schools simply don't have much in the way of after-hours emergency plans, and it's easy to see why most high schools in the country are unprepared to handle emergency situations.

Carmel Clay High School, however, was determined to be the exception to the rule. As soon as events are put on the school calendar, they begin to communicate with district police to schedule officers to assist.

The assessment process that got them there was rigorous. After undergoing an assessment, problem-solving and implementation process, the high school significantly improved its approach to safety, security and emergency response. Staff attributes much of it to the collaborative efforts and continued communication with other agencies.

"Hosting tabletops and meeting more often with our police and fire departments was probably the most beneficial and biggest change we made, as well as safety training for every person that is involved with our extracurricular events," said Amy Skeens-Benton, assistant principal at the high school. "We now have a wonderful relationship with our city departments. Police and Fire want to share their expertise and they want to work with us. Our collaboration resulted in improvement. We just can't say enough how important it is to meet regularly."

Houston, We Have a Problem

But before facilities can begin such an effective, collaborative process, they first have to admit they have a problem—or a potential one. "It is essential for sport facilities to take an all-hazards approach to planning," Voorhees advised. Whether it starts with a single walk-through by a manager, or with a whole team of experts (preferably), a facility must first be examined with a critical eye, room-by-room.

With each inspection, it is important to anticipate the worst-case scenarios to develop a risk management plan. Identifying, for example, areas of poor supervision or line-of-sight (such as in locker rooms or main entry points), or observing where there is poor lighting or poor maintenance practices, are some of the most common problems such inspections uncover.

The most pressing safety and security concerns, as noted in one report titled, "Safety in Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Center," vary according to the community. But concerns tend to include such security and safety issues as unauthorized access and theft (the top two concerns), followed by patron-on-patron violence, abduction, active shooter, natural disaster and bomb threat (a distant last).

"Awareness of vulnerabilities is an important tool for combatting and handling safety issues as they arise," observed Eric Neuburger, associate athletic director for facilities and external alliances with the University of Indiana (UI). Like Carmel High School, UI's Memorial Stadium and Assembly Hall are also recent beneficiaries of NSC4's security and safety expertise.

After working with the nonprofit organization and collaborating with a variety of team stakeholders (IU Event Services, IU Police Department, Bloomington Fire Department and many more), they too finally met SESA's rigorous standards and earned its designation. Neuburger concluded, "There is great value in the process itself, as it involves a wide spectrum of decision-makers through the university who worked collaboratively in pursuit of the SESA designation."