Ready for Anything

Improving Sports Facility Safety & Security

By Chris Gelbach

While sporting event security has tightened throughout the nation after 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, safety experts still see room for improvement at the park district, youth sports, high school and collegiate levels. In many facilities, the biggest opportunities for improvement exist in the areas of planning, training and practice to be prepared for potential safety and security risks.

It All Starts With a Plan

According to Lou Marciani, director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NSC4), 85 percent of effective sports facility safety and security comes down to planning.

"To reduce risks, you need to start out with developing and enhancing emergency plans," Marciani said. "You go into some places and they'll pick them off the shelf and they're 10 years old. Organizations should continuously look at their plans, not just shelve them. It's a living document."

Jay Hammes, president of Safe Sport Zone, recommends that schools and other organizations use a four-box risk assessment to create their plan. Potential risks with a high probability and high consequence go in the left top corner, and risks with low probability and low consequence in the bottom right corner. This helps you understand your gaps and which you need to address first.

In a litigious society, a current, written plan is integral. "If something does happen, a plaintiff's attorney is going to come after you in court," Hammes said. "Besides your credentials, show them your plans. Show them your risk assessment. You've got to have these important pieces of evidence documented."

NCS4 offers third-party reviews of an organization's security planning process through its Sport Event Security Aware (SESA) offering, but groups can also conduct their own assessment by gathering a team of local experts to look for potential gaps in the physical environment, personnel and training that pose potential risks.

"It could be the recreation director, someone from the police department, someone from emergency management, the fire department—and they go around and look at, even if it's just a checklist, here are some of the things I'm finding gaps in," Marciani said.

The documents and plans that facilities must complete for the SESA designation can also give other facilities a sense of the kinds of plans they should be considering. The list includes:

  • Event action plan
  • Evacuation/shelter-in-place plan
  • Cyber plan
  • CBRN/HAZMAT (WMD) plan
  • Buffer zone protection plan
  • Active shooter protocol
  • Rapid notification plan
  • Crisis communication plan
  • Continuity of operations plan
  • Facility policies and procedures

While emergency protocols are important for safety, basic facility conditions should also be scrutinized. While many emergency scenarios you can plan for will never occur, failing to replace a set of aging bleachers or to maintain a playable field poses a clear hazard.

Ensuring good communication with local agencies such as the police and ambulance departments is also key. This can include two-way radios for staff and establishing a direct line to these departments.

At Byram Hills Central School District in Armonk, N.Y., director of athletics Mike Gulino takes these local departments through regular walk-throughs so they're ready in case of an emergency. "They're very familiar with our facility so if we call them and say, 'we need you at the lower field of the high school,' they know exactly where the access points are," Gulino said.

Gulino is a part of a districtwide emergency response team that includes principals, assistant principals, office administrators, health services, some teachers, transportation and the head of facilities. The team meets four times a year to discuss generalized emergency response for the whole school district. Marciani recommends that every facility go through "what if" scenarios with the emergency team at least once a year.

Gulino is also part of a subcommittee that looks specifically at after-school activities. According to Hammes, a lack of attention to this particular area is a weakness he has noticed frequently in his travels to school districts across the country since 2007.

"During the school day, most schools have all their procedures in place, and they do lockdowns and evacuations and all sorts of emergency exercises. But once the bell rings very few schools are doing anything for after-school event security," Hammes said.

The Importance of Environmental Design

According to Hammes, security can also be enhanced at your facility through good environmental design, sightlines being one important element to consider. "Assess what the fan can see coming into your game," Hammes said. "And ask yourself this one question: Can I see and be seen?"

Hammes notes the example of a large fieldhouse he oversaw as athletic administrator for Wisconsin's Racine Unified School District that featured trophy cases down the middle of the lobby area. "They were blocking our view, so we took them out," he said. This allowed more room for an apron to exercise procedures, and enabled security and attendees to see each other from 25 yards away.

Other environmental features that can enhance safety minimize crowd access to the field and keep spectators a safe distance away. In Iowa City, director of parks and recreation Mike Moran and his team do this by incorporating a safety zone of at least 10 feet between the bleachers and fields. They also include a physical barrier between spectators and athletes on outdoor fields.

"You have to put a border there, and whether that's a fence or a cable or something, they have to know their limits," Moran said. On Iowa City's baseball and softball fields, fences serve this purpose. On soccer fields, the department has had success planting a row of 2- to 3-foot shrubs as a field border. "It lets people see over them, but gives them a barrier so they know their boundaries," Moran said.

At Byram Hills, the fields are likewise set up to limit spectator access to the field. The main multipurpose field features fence around the entire perimeter of the field, along with additional netting, requiring spectators to surmount two levels of barriers to reach the field. "The way our facility is set up, it's really difficult to surge the field because of all the obstacles," Gulino said.

Buiding the Event Team

In addition to creating a plan and optimizing the environment, experts say another critical component of sports safety and security is building the right team—and then training it properly and running regular practice exercises.

For the event team, "you want to pick people you can count on," Hammes said. "You've got to choose people that believe in keeping these kids engaged in these activities after school. And it takes about two years to get your team up and running."

Several options exist to provide basic training to team members, including a 90-minute program Safe Sports Zone offers on how to mitigate liability at high school athletic events. NCS4 also recently debuted a Certified Sport Venue Staff certification that includes online training and testing, as well as a background check. "I worry about what kind of a background you have," Marciani said. "If you don't [when hiring event staff], that inherently creates other risk issues."

In the Iowa City parks department, Moran trains his staff not only on how to handle potential incidents, but also how to help people deal with the aftermath of a tragic event should one occur. "We work a lot, believe it or not, with funeral directors because they're probably the most reasonable and well-versed on how you talk to people about tragic events," Moran said.

Perimeter Control

The level of access control and security needed for different events can vary greatly depending on the situation and available resources. To enhance safety at major events at Racine, Hammes used three steps for gate screening—asking to see a form of ID, conducting a visual search by asking people to open their coats, and using a metal wand detector.

"With those three steps, we'd want to get them through that exercise in eight seconds," Hammes said. "We would have 3,000 people at a basketball game with two lines going through and not have any bottlenecks with it. You have to practice to be able to do this in a timely manner. But we did it."

The checking of IDs without a record being kept was used as a low-cost deterrent. "The disruptive element is less likely to attend a game if they have to disclose their identity," Hammes said. "If you were carrying, or if you had a warrant, and noticed you had to go through this screening process to get into the event, what would you do?"

Byram Hills doesn't yet check IDs, but is considering it. Instead, it maintains a single point of access to the building manned by a security guard, both during school and for after-school events. The Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department scans the IDs of anyone who enters the building. "I want to know who's in the building if we have to lock it down," Moran said.

For big outdoor public events, checking of bags and sending people through a magnetometer or wanding are common approaches Marciani sees at the college and pro levels. But according to Hammes, checking bags is a tougher sell at the school district level.

"You'll have a hard time finding school officials who are comfortable searching," Hammes said. "You're most likely going to have law enforcement doing that. My recommendation is to go along with what MLB and the NFL have—the 12-by-6-by-12-inch clear bag. We should be consistent across the board. If you're going to go to an event in the United States and are allowed to bring something, it should be that."

Keeping Fans in Check

For many facilities, ensuring good fan behavior starts with the parents, and often includes a primer on sportsmanship at the start of the season and the passing out of an athletic handbook. At Iowa City, Moran requires at least one parent of each enrolled child to take the Parents Association for Youth Sports (PAYS) program offered by the National Alliance for Youth Sports. It's a short video-based educational program that makes youth sports parents aware of their roles and responsibilities.

At Byram Hills, Gulino goes over the standards of behavior for parents in the auditorium at the beginning of the season before the parents break off to speak with the coaches. It includes things like a prohibition on approaching a coach before or after a game (you have to wait 24 hours) and behavior that's considered unacceptable when criticizing officials.

During games, Byram Hills has also recently implemented a no-return policy—if you leave, you can't come back in. If a parent is ejected for bad behavior, the district is considering requiring that individual to complete a webinar from the National Federation of High Schools on creating a safe social environment to get back into games. "The whole idea is that we're an educational institution," Gulino said. "We believe that through education, we can change behavior."

At games, Gulino stresses the importance of policing rules to keep fan behavior in check. "The big thing in event management is you have to establish yourself early," he said. "You have to be there a half-hour before the event. We don't allow signs or tailgating. As soon as you see something you've got to jump on it right away. Just like with kids, they're going to push it and see how far they can go before somebody tries to reel them back."

Hammes recommends having each member of the staff assigned to scan an assigned bleacher area every 30 seconds for suspicious behavior—like someone getting too angry, loud or critical of officials. "This way, you can catch it on the front end," Hammes said. "Because that anger, if you let it continue, it's just going to boil over." He stresses that it's not a time to start directing or correcting, but to diffuse the situation using choice theory.

"If someone were yelling and screaming, I'd go up and first I'd apologize: I'm sorry sir, or ma'am—I'd respect them—and I'd ask them a question. Can I help you? Is there something we can do for you?"

Depending on the environment, some managers also find it helpful to diffuse these situations with humor, as Moran's team does on occasion. "We'll have our staff down on the bench and if a parent yells at an official or something, they'll turn around and throw marshmallows at the person," Moran said. "And sometimes it's sort of a wakeup call. They'll say, 'Whoa, what are you doing this for?' And we'll say, 'Because you're being an idiot.'"

If he sees some fan behavior that's less than ideal, Gulino will sometimes also address it after the fact by sending out an e-mail blast to the parents of that team to re-emphasize the importance of sportsmanship and creating a positive environment.

During an amateur sports event, Hammes sees the parking lot and the concessions stands as the two most volatile areas. "If something's going to happen, it's going to happen in the first three to five minutes after the game or at halftime," Hammes said. For this reason, he recommends moving additional event workers to the concession area before halftime, and out into the parking lot before the game is over.

More and more districts and leagues are also moving their games to earlier start times to head off potential issues. "My experience is that you have more problems with night games than you do with day games," Gulino said.

In addition to taking these actions to enhance safety, the increasing affordability of security cameras, ID-scanning systems and other technologies are also helping make better security possible. Moran notes that Iowa City has been able to implement both without charging admission to their parks facilities. Sponsorships may also be an option for some of these items.

"People see things like lightning detectors and weather alert radios as tough on a budget, but a lot of times people will purchase those for you just for sponsorships because they want the kids to be safe," Moran said.

In many facilities, money is not the limiting factor preventing safety and security anyway. "It doesn't cost any money to develop a plan," Marciani said. "It doesn't cost anything to have a checklist. It doesn't cost them anything to have a safety and security team in their community. It doesn't cost that much to train somebody or put on an exercise. Really, money isn't the issue most of the time. It's taking the effort to make safety and security part of the culture of that department."

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