Safe and Secure

Health clubs and recreation facilities are excellent hunting grounds for thieves

By Kyle Ryan

Talk about bad press. In a June 2003 issue of the Morton Grove (Ill.) Champion, the city's police chief, George Incledon, blamed a 35-percent jump in thefts in 2002 partly on the local Bally Total Fitness.

Overall, crime in the northern Chicago suburb increased by 2 percent from 2001 to 2002, but thefts themselves had increased dramatically. According to the police department, the Bally had 30 thefts in 2001—and 95 in 2002. Not only did Chief Incledon blame Bally, he said the company seemed "not that concerned" to do anything about the thefts.

Not surprisingly, Bally quickly made some changes to show they were very concerned about them. Within a few months, the company increased security patrols, installed a new entry system and surveillance cameras. The result, according to both Bally and the police, was a drop in thefts.

Regardless, it's not a good idea to wait until your city's chief of police publicly associates your facility with a crime wave to improve security. Ideally, such concerns should be taken into consideration when the building is designed, not built.

What, exactly, should be considered depends on the facility. A private health club such as Morton Grove's Bally will have different needs than a municipal recreation center, such as the one operated by Gina Barton, the recreation director for the City Park Recreation and Fitness Center in Westminster, Colo.

The center actually has two facilities: a 64,000-square-foot multiuse building that's 18 years old and a 5-year-old, 38,000-square-foot adult fitness and wellness center. As a public facility, it's open to just about anyone.

"We have a little more of a challenge because we're open to anybody," Barton says. "We have drop-in admissions, and we don't require everybody to show who they are. Sometimes there's a loss of accountability."

But Barton knows how to deal with that. She, along with Craig Bouck, the principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, gave a seminar at a recent industry conference on security issues. The key, she says, is to start with the problem areas or "hotspots"—and there are plenty of them.

Parking lots

Two main issues arise when it comes to parking lots: lighting and landscaping. Too little light, and the parking lot is dangerous. Too much light, and it becomes a light polluter that annoys neighbors. Too little landscaping (that is, trees, shrubs, bushes), and you have an asphalt eyesore. Too much landscaping, and no one can see the lot from the outside world. Today's saplings will be quite larger in 10 years, and what was once an easy view to the street can become blocked by a tree.

According to Barton, the problem can be alleviated by regular maintenance and using foot lighting near bushes. Most landscaping problems can be solved pretty easily.

"Landscaping you can remove," Bouck says. "You can trim trees. You can remove some pieces of landscaping."

The lighting issue is a little trickier. Cars have changed over the years, which makes lighting the area around them more difficult—thanks to everyone's favorite scapegoat, SUVs.

"I call it the 'SUV phenomenon,'" Bouck says. "What happens is these huge cars get parked in these lots, and because there seems to be more than ever, what they do is create canyons between them with smaller cars. Light poles tend to be spaced just far enough apart to create these shadows."

Those shadows cover the doors into adjacent cars, obscuring them from view. Although adding more light might solve the problem, it can create another, especially if the surrounding area is residential.

"Neighbors don't want too much light so they're living next to a baseball field," Bouck says.

He suggests using more light poles at a lower height, which will help reduce the shadows. Doing so, of course, comes at a price, one that may exceed the planned budget.

Another option to consider is changing the parking lot's location. Whenever possible, Bouck's company tries to put parking lots in front of health clubs, so people can get out of their cars within sight of the front door. That design tends to clash, though, with pedestrian-friendly city plans, which don't want a parking lot between the sidewalk and the facility.


Here's a handy recap of places in a facility that need special attention.

  1. Parking lot. Keep it lighted but don't be a light polluter. Be mindful that big SUVs and trucks create shadows over smaller cars that can potentially be dangerous. Make sure any landscaping isn't obstructing sightlines to the street or elsewhere. Consider video surveillance or hiring security.
  2. Front desk. Your first line of defense. Your screening procedure depends on your facility's attitude toward customer service, but make sure the desk can see who comes in (and out) and can see different areas of the club.
  3. Locker rooms. Have your staff make frequent trips to them but use different people at unpredictable intervals. Make sure you have durable lockers and that people actually lock them.
  4. Child care. Keep the area highly visible with at least two staff members present at all times. Have the children play in an area separated from the door into the room and devise a system to make sure the person picking up a child is the same one who dropped him off.
  5. Gymnasiums. Keep them visible, and consider having a staff member present during basketball games. Less aggressive design schemes and ample space around the court can also help reduce altercations.

Regardless of where the lot is located, traffic patterns need to be considered. Pedestrians should not walk on the lot's major thoroughfare. If children use the facility, consider having a drop-off area for parents. Of course, as times change, designs will have to be adjusted.

"We added a street and another entrance, and we found that people were kind of using the parking lot as a way to bypass the street if there were traffic problems," Barton says, adding that speed bumps and stop signs can help curtail aggressive driving and make the area safer for pedestrians.

To monitor what goes on in the parking lots, some facilities have installed video cameras, much like supermarkets and malls. Although some want to use dummy cameras (that is, ones that record nothing) in the hopes they will deter potential thieves, Bouck advises against them because of potential liability concerns.

Relying on cameras for deterrence purposes only won't work anyway, according to Barton.

"People have no problem doing things right in front of the camera," she says.

Her facility recently added 20 surveillance cameras at different areas, all of which are taped. While Barton says they've been helpful when something happens, they can instill a sense of complacency in guests.

"You put in cameras," she says, "and people get a false sense of 'Oh, it's being videotaped. I'm safe. Nothing's going to happen.'"

That same sense of complacency occurs when police officers or security guards monitor parking lots.

"Some of the problems we've had are either people see the police officer and instantly think, 'Oh my god, they have to have a police officer; this place must be unsafe,'" Barton says. "Or they see the police officer and think, 'It's really safe; I should have no problem if I leave the car unlocked.'"

Security guards might not be much of a deterrent, either. Barton pays $40 per hour for hers—and once had someone successfully break into a car parked next to the police officer.

Front desks

"The front desk has always been important, but it's becoming even more critical," Bouck says. It's the first line of defense, the place where potential thieves and ne'er-do-wells can be stopped in their tracks.

How many safeguards a facility has in place, though, depends on its attitudes toward customer service and safety/security.

For example, in a completely open, warm and inviting environment, the staff will not be able to keep track of who enters and exits the building because traffic will not be forced to pass them. On the other hand, making everyone pass through an electronic turnstile will offer more control but not be as welcoming. Bouck says the key is to create something that has elements of both ends of the spectrum.

"Our goal is the first thing you see is a warm, friendly face regardless of the control measures you have, not a turnstile, not a gate, nothing like that," Bouck says.

That warm, friendly face can also make mental notes of people as they enter—a good quality to have in case of a problem. That direct eye contact can also serve as a deterrent to potential thieves, who might hope to blend in and slip by unnoticed.

The front desk should be able to keep an eye on a number of areas, too, not just the front door. Bouck suggests it have a view into all the major venues, such as a gymnasium, swimming pool and lounge area in a multiuse facility.

Before guests can reach those places, though, they need to pass the desk. There are three varieties of entry-control systems: soft control, where guests pass in front of a desk without having to stop; passive control, such as an unlocked gate; and hard control, such as turnstiles or a locked gate.

Barton's facility has tried all three systems. Originally, guests at the City Park Recreation Center had to check in with the front desk, obtain a token from a staff member and insert it into a slot at a turnstile for entry. Because the turnstiles weren't close enough to the front desk, people would jump them.

As plans were made to use a passive system (an unlocked gate), the facility had no barrier in place. When the gate came in, members became a little miffed.

"When we put in our gate system, our guests were like, 'High security, you don't trust us,'" Barton says. They got over it, and Barton is pleased. "It's a symbol; it says, 'Stop here, you have to do something,' and that's worked out really well."

Bally Total Fitness in Morton Grove needed more than a symbol. The club's operators instead implemented a turnstile system. Guests have to scan a membership card in a box by the turnstile, which shows on a monitor located at the desk if the card is valid. If it is, the turnstile unlocks to allow them to pass.

In Texas, a few subdivisions are getting even more high-tech. At Canyon Lakes, a 4,000-home subdivision near Houston, the 2.5-acre aquatics facility (which includes a separate 5,400-square-foot splash play area) has implemented a fingerprint-recognition device for entry.

Information about each household member is stored after the person registers his or her print on the scanner. To get in later, he just has to put his thumb on a scanning pad. Facility operators also can disable entry for a person if there's a problem.

"You don't have to have the card along—you always have your hand," says Mark Soderberg, general manager for the company that helped build the park.

The splash play area also has six cameras overlooking the site. If parents cannot accompany their children to the facility, they can log onto a password-protected Web site and watch streaming video from the cameras to keep an eye on their children.

Such high-tech gadgetry isn't necessary for every facility. When it comes to entry systems, Bouck says, determine where your priorities lie with customer service and safety and security.

"Nail those down and get real specific about it, and that will dictate what kind of system you'll have," he says. "People can see what fits for them."

As hip as thumbprint-recognition sounds, sometimes the simplest system is the most effective.

"The one thing I will tell people when they're designing is to make sure your entry and exit are located in the same area, and that it's right by the front desk, and you're not putting it across the lobby—keep it simple," Barton says.

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.

Child-care areas

Because of the devastating potential of poorly managed child-care areas, they're often the most scrutinized places in a facility.

"There's not a lot of ground-breaking things there," Bouck says, but there are plenty of safeguards that need to be in place.

For example, both he and Barton say a child-care area needs to be supervised by two staff members at all times, never fewer. That way if one becomes distracted, the other can keep an eye on the rest of the children.

Barton recommends having the door to the child-care room open into a staging area, not the room itself. Parents can drop their kids off there and receive some kind of ID tag or bracelet to have when picking up their children later.

Keep the area where the children play cordoned off by a half wall to provide another barrier between them and the outside world. Doors also should signal when they open so the staff can know if someone is coming in or out. It's also a good idea to have a lot of windows to see into the child-care area, and it should be in an nonsecluded place in the facility so many people can see what occurs there.


The threat from gymnasiums mostly comes from the activity that occurs there, not the areas themselves. People play basketball in gymnasiums, and particularly when it's male and full-court, altercations occur because of the aggressive nature of the sport.

Barton has even gone as far as hiring a police officer to make sure everyone plays nicely. If that's not in the budget, just having a staff member there and keeping the games organized (as opposed to pickup games) can help decrease the likelihood of problems.

"It's unfortunate, but it is a pretty competitive sport, and depending on what you get in there it cannot be a great situation," Barton says.

Bouck adds that certain design elements can make the environment less conducive to overly aggressive behavior: natural, even lighting; soothing color schemes; and ample space around the court so that no one gets pushed into walls easily.

"One of the biggest things we can do is to make sure we've got as many windows from other places so that people walking by can see what's going on," he says. "We always try to run the running track through there so you can watch what's happening in there and report it to the staff."

Barton also suggests posting a code of conduct, so that the rules are clear and people know what is not allowed—and can't claim ignorance if asked to leave.

Employee theft

Sometimes the people who are supposed to be the good guys aren't; employees, unfortunately, can be a big source of theft in facilities if procedures aren't in place to deal with it. Bouck says it falls into three categories: staff on customer, staff on staff and staff on organization (stealing money, letting people in for free, and so on.)

Preventing theft from the organization has a lot to do with policies and procedures, Bouck says. Money needs to be double and triple checked to make sure nothing is missing. A strong system of checks and balances will make it more difficult to steal.

"In terms of stealing from customers, the same safeguards that we've got to protect customers from each other are going to protect the staff from each other," Bouck says. "What I've heard at least is you're not getting away with too much before you're caught if you're staff who's taking advantage of customers."

When it comes to protecting employees from employees, Bouck suggests having safe places to store their things during work. Consider making it separate from the place where temporary staff would keep their belongings.

  1. Only bring what you need to a club; minimize the amount of cash, credit cards, jewelry and any other valuables that you bring inside.
  2. Don't count on your locker to keep everything safe. Always lock it, no matter what.
  3. Don't leave anything in your car, either, especially in plain view.
  4. Don't leave your things unattended, no matter how briefly. That's the best time to steal them.
  5. Don't ever assume it won't happen to you. It will.
  6. If someone looks suspicious, report it to the staff. Take note of what people look like.
  7. Avoid parking next to big SUVs/trucks at night, as they can cast shadows over smaller cars.
  8. Obey all rules in the code of conduct.

Making it all work

Really, there's only so much anyone can do with a limited time and money and often strained resources. As helpful as it would be to have fingerprint-scanning lockers and tracking devices on children, some things just aren't possible.

Regardless, Bouck suggests facilities take the long view when designing and making decisions on what to use. For example, install conduits in walls during construction so that, should your facility need surveillance cameras in the future, the apparatus for implementing them is already in place.

"We encourage them to spend the money upfront to do things that would make adding them in the future easier," Bouck says.

And if something doesn't work the way it's supposed to, fix it.

"The one thing I've told people is don't be afraid to make changes if the design isn't working for whatever reason," Barton says. "Even if you have a brand-new facility, you may discover pretty quickly that some things just aren't working. You hate to go back and think, 'Oh, we put all this money into this, and it isn't working the way we thought. It doesn't matter. Just go ahead and change it."

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