A Healthy Approach to Fitness Center Security

Students and staff often perceive fitness centers as breeding grounds for thefts and assaults: After all, their doors typically open earlier and remain unlocked later than other buildings, and they attract coed students sporting body-hugging clothing.

“Typically we don’t have a problem,” says David Bowles, associate recreational sports director at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “But when suddenly something is stolen, because of the pure magnitude of numbers, the situation gets magnified.” That’s why recreation centers at the University of Florida (U of F) and Ohio University (OU) in Athens stay on their toes to ensure their security plans remain several jogging steps ahead of reality. U of F’s acres boast two centers: the Student Recreation & Fitness Center, which opened in 1991, and the 64,000-sq.-ft. Southwest Recreation Center, brought online in the fall of 1994. Because U of F enrolls 43,000 students each year, Bowles counts on more than 800,000 visits to the fitness centers Ñ and it’s not uncommon to handle 3,000 people on a weekday when the facilities operate from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Ohio University, too, offers its 19,000 students a new facility this decade Ñ the 165,000-sq.-ft. Ping Center, boasting everything from a double-sided climbing wall, basketball/volleyball courts, two multipurpose gymnasiums and a four-lane indoor running track, to an enclosed glass fitness area. Students stream through from 6:30 a.m. until midnight during fall and spring semesters.

Ins and Outs

The key to securing a facility in Bowles’s book involves ensuring that the people who don’t belong in a building can’t enter. Architects deliberately designed the newer Southwest Center so that it offers everyone only one entrance and exit Ñ staff control traffic flow in both directions at all times. “It’s not a prison, I swear!” Bowles laughs.

Instead, consider it secure: Students and staff present their identification cards at this entry, where personnel scan the data to match a downloaded computer file. Guests must be accompanied by a valid student and present photo identification for staff to record. Rarely does this single checkpoint concept snarl foot traffic. “On occasion when we’re most crowded and may have spectators arriving for a fraternity intramural game, we might see a line,‘ Bowles says. Often he establishes separate check-in tables for players and guests to keep everyone happy.

U of F’s Student Recreation & Fitness Center features multiple entrances, so students keep their I.D. handy for a layer of checkpoints Ñ typically at popular sites like racquetball courts, basketball courts, weight rooms and aerobic classes. OU’s Ping Center also boasts more than one way in, so its director of campus safety, Ted Jones, relies on clandestine, pinhole surveillance cameras to observe activities. “We highlighted those to the press Ñ especially the student press Ñ and as a result saw a substantial reduction in thefts,’ ‘he reports.

Storage

Fitness center thefts focus on a handful of common items: jewelry (including watches), keys and book bags. “Folks lay their belongings outside the handball court or on the edge of the bleachers while they get involved in an activity. They think they can watch them, but then they forget about them in the heat of competition,” says Jones.

On the other hand, Bowles notices that locker rooms rank at the top of dishonest students’ hit lists simply because that’s where the bulk of belongings are Ñ and human nature dictates that most students assume “out of sight, out of reach” and eschew padlocks on these cubicles to make it an even easier haul. So while most fitness centers automatically install lockers, the trick lies in convincing the crowd to use them properly. Southwest Recreation Center opted for the day locker keyed version, where students pay a quarter deposit to shove their belongings in a steel cubbyhole. It’s impossible to use this convenience amenity without committing to a secure, locked box. And the random choice aspect assures thieves can’t scout out a specific locker for trends - nor can students rely on this as a second off-site storage option for their dorm room.

Jones relies on educational signage posted near the Ping Center’s lockers to drive home the fact that students shouldn’t put their pants and wallets in the corner of a court and expect their world to remain the same. The university located its lockers within staff’s sight lines to deter sudden impulses as well - a tactic that has worked well at U of F’s Student Recreational & Fitness Center. Here, the floor plan dictates that all students must walk their personal gear past the staff after retrieving it. Although the university doesn’t specifically train personnel in body language to spot suspicious behavior, amateur light fingers rarely chance getting caught by their nervous reactions.

Let’s (Not) Get Physical

Fitness centers harness huge amounts of adrenaline, which leave both participants and bystanders susceptible to physical injury should these emotions explode. According to Bowles and Jones, the basketball court looms as the biggest assault culprit. “It’s fast-paced, with great potential for people to knock into each other. And unfortunately, youth today are influenced by what they see on TV, and in the NBA everybody pushes and shoves,” Bowles says. His centers impose a “no hanging on the rim” rule and ban dunking to keep tempers under wraps. (Staff firmly escort violators to the door.)

Ping Center personnel intercede when the argument remains in the debate mode; police officers automatically get a call to address any hostile physical contact. But on the upside, such assaults offer a sense of predictability Ñ it’s the stranger-grabs-an-exiting-female scenario that frightens administrators and facility users alike. Fortunately, the situation is merely a scare for most campuses Ñ the recreation centers’ high-traffic volume alone provides some protection.

“People don’t tend to commit crimes when other folks are around, so the facility’s location becomes part of your plan,” Jones says. For instance, Ohio University’s center sits close to three open residential greens where miscreants can’t exactly hide in peace, and a major university street runs in front of the Ping Center. Architects placed the parking lot in front of the building to advertise its activities to that vehicular traffic, and to assure that fitness buffs needn’t walk long distances to their cars at night. A clearly visible emergency telephone along the front walkway also shouts, “This is not an ideal place to launch a surprise attack.”

It goes without saying flood lights and severely trimmed (or no) shrubbery around the fitness center’s perimeters put the public’s mind at ease as well. Both universities say they step up patrols in these areas near opening and closing time to reassure staff and avoid-the-rush exercisers. The University of Florida’s police department partners with Bowles on annual staff training issues before the fall semester; Jones meets with the Ping Center’s personnel on a monthly basis to feel out their perceived vulnerabilities.

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