Safe & Secure

New Trends in Sports Facility Security & Safety


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."

Train of Thought

After key people have been identified, risks evaluated and solutions developed, the next vital step to improve security and safety is effective staff training on incident management strategies and risk management practices, plans and policies.

Best practices developed by NCS4, for example, suggest that staff clearly understand their manager's "what, why and how" of practicing the prescribed safety and security responses. When staff are involved with the planning process and understand what, how and why certain measures should to be taken, the resulting buy-in means they are more likely to follow through.

Training is not a one-time event, however. It needs to be an ongoing process of regular evaluation, collaborative problem-solving and raising awareness. And practices need to be reviewed annually. Between conducting regular exercises and discussion-based training (seminars, tabletops, simulations), and full-scale exercises, facilities will find themselves much better prepared to handle the "what ifs" should they actually arise.

That has certainly been true in Neuburger's opinion when it comes to the countless adjustments IU made in response to the risk management process. "The most important is a culture of enhanced awareness of security threats to our students, staff and guests," Neuburger said. "Bag checks, dedicated entrances, amended policies, physical enhancements and better trained staff have been the primary changes thus far. We now have short, intermediate and long-term plans for continued threat assessment, staffing and physical improvements to our facilities."

Such an approach as Neuburger describes avoids one of the most common mistakes clubs make—to view risk management as a program in isolation. It is essential that training and improvements be ongoing, applied to all a facility's policies and procedures.

Additionally, the benefits of all this effort go far beyond improved safety and security. The process also tends to improve teamwork, generate better recreational outcomes, enhance image and reputation, improve management efficiency, and even lower some costs.

Safer by Design

Whether you are upgrading an existing facility or creating a new one, it is important to think about key areas (such as locker rooms and entryways), and design them with smarter layouts and features that enhance safety and security.

At the Sport and Leisure Complex in Coquitlam Poirer, Vancouver, Canada, lockers and benches were placed in a common area with direct line-of-sight from the pool deck. Stall doors (that didn't go all the way to the floor) and changing areas were located around the exterior of the lockers and benches.


"The thinking was that this would keep these spaces transparent and cut down on theft," said Scott W. Hester, PE with Counsilman-Hunsaker. "Since the lockers were all exposed to the natatorium as well as the dry side corridor, theft in lockers has been dramatically reduced."

Designing a primary entrance controlled by a check-in entry point that has visual access to much of the facility is a design feature recommended by a recent whole building design guide from the Institute of Building Sciences (IBS) as a safeguard against unauthorized access.

Other often-suggested deterrents to unauthorized entry and theft are more video cameras, ID-checking software, better lighting at night, closer ties with law enforcement and more part-time staff in high-risk areas.

According to the findings of IBS, one of the areas most at risk is the locker room because of insufficient supervision. A treasure trove of personal belongings in a space without video cameras, the locker room is an ideal location for thieves to access patrons' credit cards, cash, electronics, jewelry and other stored possessions.

While it is helpful to post signs encouraging patrons to be careful with their belongings (by either leaving them at home or carrying them with them while at facility), the biggest deterrent is to know who is actually present.

To that end, some facilities require members to scan membership cards to enter and have their guests leave a photo ID or take their picture. Others require locker room attendants to exchange the patron's card for a key to a specific locker. This helps to eliminate the usual wandering that follows as they search for an available locker. Having another attendant just to patrol the area is also effective.


Technology also plays a significant role in reducing theft, unauthorized access and other unwanted behaviors. Check-in technology, for example, now runs the gamut of membership cards to cardless check-ins. 24 Hour Fitness recently introduced its members to a cardless technology in an effort to be more green and convenient. Members input a numerical code and place their finger on a scanner to gain access to the gym. No more cards to lose. No more fraudulent entry.


Other facilities use check-in cards with proximity readers embedded with a code that, when read, signals certain doors to open or turnstiles to function to let the member access the facility. This is especially useful for those gyms that are open 24/7 and have fewer staff to assist in the wee hours of the night and morning.

Thanks to the revolution in communication with smartphones and social networking apps like Twitter, location-based software is now available to sport facilities to use during special events to monitor fan comments in an effort to prevent disturbances before they happen.

Cybercrime, too, is becoming big business. According to one SIA report about a study conducted by the Ponemon Institute, the average cost per organization is $15 million per year. Vigilance in software to prevent viruses or hacking comes in many forms and should be part of the overall strategy to improve security.

"This is an ongoing process; it's not a completion," Skeens-Benton concluded.

Kelli Ra Anderson