It's 9 p.m. and the majority of club members have left for the evening. In through the front door walks a member. She reports to the front desk staff that she has seen a man lurking between cars in the parking lot. What should the front desk staff do?

If the club has a security plan in place, the staff knows exactly what to do. If the club doesn't and a car theft or an assault occurs that night, the inaction of the front desk staff could not only injure a member but could turn into a liability issue for the club owner.

Keeping your members, staff and facility safe and secure should be one of the top priorities at a club, says Marc Bradshaw, private security consultant and president of the International Association of Professional Security Consultants. Too often, however, that's not the case.

“Keep in mind that the greatest loss in dollars to fitness clubs is going to be from situations where through inadequate security or negligence someone suffers some sort of personal loss,” Bradshaw says. “They might lose dollars to employee theft, but that will be caught quickly most of the time. It's where they either failed to acknowledge a major security exposure or haven't taken steps to remedy exposure after it's been pointed out to them, that's where they are open to liability.”

The average settlement in a security-related lawsuit for businesses of all kinds is $1.2 million, according to a Liability Consultants study. The majority of these lawsuits — one in five — deal with crimes that occurred in parking lots. Of all personal injury lawsuits, inadequate lighting is the most frequently cited factor. Not only should parking lots be well lit, but depending on the neighborhood, the parking lot may also need to be fenced.

Two basic types of crimes exist: crimes against the person and crimes against property.

The most significant crimes in terms of effect are crimes against persons, such as murders, rapes and assaults. These crimes usually occur outside the club, which means club owners must begin their security efforts along the edges of their property.

“We feel we have a responsibility to protect our members,” says Jere Knoles, owner and manager at the Westroads Club in Omaha, NE. For security, Knoles had a fence installed around the parking lot but the two entrances are free of security gates. Security cameras monitor the parking lot, and signs let potential thieves know they are being monitored.

Shrubbery is another parking lot concern. Some clubs are tucked amongst trees and beautiful landscaping, but club owners should minimize the cover that landscaping provides criminals.

Crimes against property, which usually mean theft, often occur in the locker room. A careless member might leave a wallet or a purse on a locker room bench or forget to lock his or her locker, but thieves also often break into locked lockers in search of valuables.

A variety of locker locks are on the market: coin operated, card operated and transponder operated. The transponder locks use a computer chip in a membership card or wristband to unlock a lock.

Most clubs use some type of card-operated lock, says Steve Rodesch, manager of North American Sales at Safe-O-Mat, a company that manufactures locker locks. However, Rodesch says, the majority of locker break-ins don't occur by picked or broken locks. Instead, they occur when the lockers themselves are pried open.

AT THE FRONT

While the parking lot and locker rooms are important security areas, the front desk is the front line for preventing non-members (and possible thieves) from access to the inside of the facility. A club should have membership cards, surveillance cameras, gates or other measures in place that ensure that only members or guests can enter the building. One of those other measures is an automated entry system that recognizes and admits only members.

Knoles' gym has a biometric entry device, the ID3D Hand Key, which keeps non-members out of the club. The Hand Key requires a member number and a scan of a member's hand before activating a turnstile to let the member into the club. Knoles installed the device more to prevent non-members from using his club without paying than to keep thieves out, but theft prevention is a side benefit.

The biggest concern should be that people with no membership or expired membership have access to the club and eventually to locker rooms and other parts of the building, says Steve Meineke, general manager at RapidTron. Rapidtron provides an automated smart access system for integration with existing club management software. The access system includes a fully automated gate with an integrated bar code and smart card reader. When a member enters the club, he or she walks directly to the access gate and swipes the membership card. The information programmed on the card is transferred to the check-in software. If club membership is valid, the gate opens automatically and the member walks into the club. If the membership is invalid, a message appears on the reader. Rapidtron is developing a new technology that uses face recognition or thumbprints of members for admittance.

Plasco ID already offers a biometric device that recognizes thumbprints. The device, called iGuard, is a terminal that is mounted on a wall or at the front desk. The terminal has its own internal Web service and IP address, which means staff can access the terminal from a Web site and easily maintain the list of members. Before being allowed in the facility or through the turnstile, members must place their finger on a slot in the terminal and either type in a pin number or hold up a smart card next to the terminal. The system then buzzes the turnstile and allows the member inside. Requiring both a fingerprint and a pin number or smart card prevents someone from gaining access to the facility with a stolen card or pin number.

Plasco ID also offers a digital ID badge system that includes a card with a magnetic stripe and/or a barcode. When swiped through a club's entry system, the card displays a picture of the member on a computer at the front desk, thereby allowing the front desk staff to buzz in the member.

CHILDCARE

Health clubs with childcare facilities have an added area of security concern. A facility with childcare should be well staffed and measures should be in place to ensure the proper person picks up the child. The best-designed childcare areas restrict access to those that belong by having only one door to the childcare area and requiring a card to access the area. Bradshaw also suggests placing large windows in the care area so they are highly exposed to the outside world.

Because club owner and attorney Knoles considers a childcare facility in a health club “a lawsuit waiting to happen,” he does not provide that service to his members. However, East Bank Club in Chicago does offer childcare through its Children's Activity Center. When parents or guardians first use the Children's Activity Center, they fill out a card listing those who are authorized to pick up their child. Only those listed by the parents can pick up the child, and photo identification is required upon pickup. In addition, the center is locked, and the staff buzzes in members.

The club owners should also protect their members' children by running background checks on the employees in the childcare facility to ensure there's no history of child abuse in the person's background.

“Club owners should establish that they know who is working for them,” Bradshaw says. “That is particularly true in a childcare environment.”

EMPLOYEE THEFT

In fact, it's not a bad idea to run a background check on all of a club's employees. While every club owner hopes he or she can trust staff, the fact is that employees are the largest source of theft at many clubs, Bradshaw says. The staff at many gyms often is young and paid little. Those two factors combined create a high staff turnover rate and little employee loyalty to the club, making theft — whether stealing from locker rooms or letting friends in for free — easier.

As part of a security or loss prevention plan, club owners should run potential employees through a basic background investigation, such as a criminal check or just a prior reference check, to ensure the identity of the person they hire and to verify why the person left his or her last job, Bradshaw recommends.

Knoles runs a background check on all his employees, although he maintains that his hiring practice, which is to hire no one under 30, helps prevent thefts. His club, which is in the affluent west side of Omaha, attracts a “better caliber of employees,” Knoles says. Many of his staff members have been with the club for more than seven years.

While Bradshaw balks at performing background checks on members, Knoles doesn't hesitate to check out members. He runs a credit check on every potential member, reasoning that anyone who has been in trouble with the law will have a bad credit history.

“Most guys in jail can't pay their bills because they are in jail,” he says. He doesn't usually run a criminal check on members unless one draws his suspicions.

SECURITY ON A BUDGET

If a club doesn't have much of a budget for security, then Bradshaw says the club owner should do one thing before anything else: establish a security plan. Somebody from that organization should define what security means to the club, establishing what steps the club will take to ensure that, such as doing background checks on employees or installing sales monitor software.

“That's really a very inexpensive way of doing things,” Bradshaw says. “It's most important because it guides the way they go and could be important if something occurs down the road.”

Spending a few hundred dollars to have a security consultant review a club is another good investment, Bradshaw says.

“It's a good idea to have owners bring in someone besides local police to take a look at their security plan,” Bradshaw says. The review would take a few hours and would involve the consultant walking around the facility and making suggestions for improvements. The cost varies depending on the part of the country in which the club is located, but Bradshaw says it should cost no more than a couple of hundred dollars in most places.

“It will give you a feel for where your exposure is,” he says.

The consultant may recommend an intrusion alarm. The yearly cost of an intrusion alarm and monthly monitoring vs. what could happen from vandalism or theft renders the yearly alarm cost insignificant, Bradshaw says.

“I think every fitness center should have something like that,” he says.

Cameras can also act as a deterrent to crime. Bradshaw says that while closed-circuit televisions are a good idea, they shouldn't be put up arbitrarily without accompanying them with a monitoring system or they will create an illusion of security and that could come back to haunt club owners in a court of law if something happened.

As part of its security measures, the East Bank Club posts cameras in nearly every area of the facility, according to Joe Rossie, senior manager at the club. The video from those cameras can be viewed in the club's management office, and the computer stores them for 45 days.

Knoles has had security cameras trained on his parking lot in the upscale area of Omaha for the past five years.

“The important thing to notice is that we haven't had a problem in five years because we've taken measures to protect our members,” Knoles says.

That's the kind of record that more club owners wish they had.

In all, it doesn't take a major investment to improve the security of a club. Just a security plan, a well-lit lot, an intrusion alarm, and some sort of entry system to keep out non-members can go a long way to more clubs being able to brag about a five-year absence from crime.

Security Should Begin at the Beginning

When a club owner begins planning for a new club, security generally is not at the top of his or her mind. However, it should be.

“When they design a facility with security in mind, it is more cost effective,” says Marc Bradshaw, private security consultant and president of the International Association of Professional Security Consultants.

A security consultant can work with a club owner to locate a low-crime neighborhood for the new facility or to suggest security precautions in a higher crime area. The consultant can work with the architect on issues such as whether the facility should have windows and, if so, how high they should be, or what type of door and hinges to install. The consultant can even advise on whether the front door should face the street or not and can work with the landscaper to develop security-conscious landscaping.

When a club owner waits to consider security until after the club is built, it can cause additional expenses in retrofits and possible expenses for security personnel. It can also lead to exposed alarm systems and wires or blocked doors and windows, all of which are not only unsightly, but are also an added danger for members and staff — and another potential liability issue.

@ Club industry

We'd like to hear your feedback about security at your club. Please send a letter to the editor at jagoglia@primediabusiness.com with your comments about this article, club security in general or to respond to one or more of the following quesitons:

  • Does your club have a written security plan? If so, do you regularly train your staff about the measures? If not, why don't you have a written plan?
  • What sort of security measures do you have in place at your club? When did you implement those measures, and have they reduced your incidents of crime?
  • Do you agree that most club thefts are perpetrated by club employees, or from your experience, have most of your club's crimes been committed by members or non-members?
  • What types of crimes do you see the most at your club — vandalism, theft of property inside the club, theft of property outside the club, or crimes against persons?
  • Have you had any identity thefts at your club? If so, what steps have you implemented to prevent it from happening again?