Feature Article - September 2004
Find a printable version here

Safe and Secure

Health clubs and recreation facilities are excellent hunting grounds for thieves

By Kyle Ryan

Locker rooms

In July 2001 at the New York Sports Club in Manhattan, seven female club members had the locks broken off their lockers and the contents stolen. According to a report in The New York Observer, the thief broke into five lockers in the space of half an hour and stole everything from an umbrella to a glucose meter.

To add insult to injury, someone posing as a detective for the city's "fraud division" later called all the victims and asked for their birthdates, Social Security numbers and PINs—and got them.

While most thieves aren't so bold, locker rooms are prime hunting grounds for crooks. That's mainly because locker rooms lack supervision; people spend a minimal amount of time there. Clubs can't use cameras in them because of privacy issues, though a few have just skipped having a middleman like a camera. Some New York clubs—such as Bally, NYSC, Equinox and Crunch—responded to 2001's crime wave by stationing guards in locker rooms.

It doesn't have to come to that, according to Barton. She recommends starting with frequent staff walk-throughs, using different people at unpredictable intervals so potential thieves don't feel comfortable.

Design obviously plays a role, too. Locker bays may offer more privacy, but they also create more opportunities for thieves than a straight wall of lockers would.

Lockers themselves come in numerous varieties of both material and locking mechanism. Depending how they're built, their maintenance requirements and long-term durability differ.

"There again you have to decide," Bouck says. "'What are we willing to invest upfront in terms of materials, and what are we willing to maintain in terms of how much staff time we want to invest in keeping these things up and running?'"

There are essentially three types of lockers: laminate, phenolic/plastic and metal. The first are made of wood with a plastic laminate—strong and cheap, but subject to warping in time when exposed to moisture. Phenolic/plastic lockers are extremely strong and water-resistant with no painting or finish upkeep required. Metal lockers, like the one you had in high school, are also extremely strong, but they tend to rust (especially in humid environments like locker rooms) and can be loud.

Finding something that has maximum strength with minimum maintenance, of course, is ideal, but it doesn't come cheaply. Bouck estimates the difference between a plastic laminate and durable plastic locker could be more than double in price, which is a problem when a locker room requires numerous lockers.

However, intermediate lockers, ones that try to be a jack of all trades, can pay a different kind of price for being the master of none.

"If you really wanted to break into these things, with a crowbar, or if you're really strong, you could," Bouck says. "The other thing is over time with the abuses they get in a public facility—kids hanging off the doors or leaving wet clothes in these things—it tends to make them weaker, which makes them easier to break into."

That's not even the biggest challenge, Bouck adds. A facility could have lockers made of bombproof Kevlar, but that wouldn't matter if people didn't lock them in the first place—which frequently happens.

The solution? Post signs—and lots of them—reminding people to lock everything up. Getting people to do that depends on the locking system the lockers use, which tend to come in three varieties: padlock/combination lock, key or coin-operated.

Coin-operated locks tend to inspire the most lethargy, as guests have to pay each time they open the locker, making them less likely to lock it if they're just running to the shower (prime time for thefts). Key locks can present a similar problem, especially if the key works in conjunction with coins. At the least, people have to carry keys with them, which they may not want to do. Combination locks leave it up to guests to protect themselves, but they also make it easy to get in and out of a locker.

"It's a little more effective definitely if you have the system where they can get in and out," Barton says. "I definitely liked where they could bring their own padlocks, because it encouraged people to use one. That's an important thing; it's education—it's educating people to make sure they lock their stuff up."

One area has seen a marked decrease in theft: the family locker room. A staple of newly constructed facilities, family locker rooms feature a common locker area next to small, private rooms for changing, showering, and so on.

Bouck says the areas have become the most popular parts of clubs, used by parents, people with disabilities, seniors and couples who want to save the hassle by keeping their belongings in the same locker.

"People were putting in four and then six, and demand was so high that people were asking for more," Bouck says.

As the popularity of the family locker room grew, Bouck heard anecdotal evidence of a marked decline in thefts. The design of the areas would seem to support that. First, all of the lockers are visible from the adjoining hallways—no one is changing in front of them, so they don't need to be out of sight. Additionally, more people move through the areas because all types of people use them—meaning significantly less time for attempted break-ins. Finally, there's no dangerous "interim period," where someone hops in the shower but doesn't lock the locker. Members take their stuff, enter the private rooms to shower or change, then leave. There's never an opportunity for anything to be left unattended.