The very word biometrics tends to evoke scenes from sci-fi movies or thoughts of political intrigue. Despite that cachet, biometrics has evolved into a rather practical tool in access control.

The very word biometrics tends to evoke scenes from sci-fi movies or thoughts of political intrigue. Despite that cachet, biometrics has evolved into a rather practical tool in access control. It's Walt Disney World, after all, that represents the largest commercial application of biometrics technology in the United States. Increasingly, recreation departments are discovering the utility of biometrics in their recreation centers, making the technology less the stuff of Hollywood movies and more the stuff of this year's operating budget.

"Simply, we were hoping to utilize the technology that was available and also keep our expenses lower by not having to issue membership cards to every one of our members," LeeAnn Plumer, director of the Annapolis, Md., recreation and parks department, says of the biometrics-based access control system the department launched in January 2010 with the opening of the city's largest recreation center. "We were using new software that had the technology to implement biometrics, so we thought we'd give it a try and see how it worked for us."

Most rec departments using the technology are indeed still in the "give it a try" phase, and the reviews are mostly positive.

As it relates to access control in recreation centers, the technology is remarkably simple. The process begins with an "enrollment," in which physiological biometric data - most often fingerprint or finger vein patterns - are gathered and integrated with a user's membership profile.

"If their membership information - their name, address, phone number - is in our database already, and they're already registered with us, then basically all that's required is someone on our customer service staff pulling up their account, placing the member's finger down and getting the read," says Judy Stiles, spokesperson for the Montgomery County (Md.) Department of Recreation, which launched a pilot program for biometric access control at three different types of recreation facilities in January. "It's all done in a minute."

The access process can be as simple as scan-and-go, or front desk staff members can review the patron's membership photo and membership status as it relates to accessing specific programs within the facility. In any case, the scanners should be part of an access system that allows staff to track which users are at the facility, and when. Naturally, this integration can help facility operators gauge program participation, but it can also effectively serve as a deterrent to inappropriate or criminal behavior.

For example, Poway Community Park, a more than $1 million state-of-the-art skate park in the San Diego suburb, had seen a steady increase in forced entries, loitering, graffiti and other vandalism since it opened in 2003. Part of the problem was that California state law dictated that staff presence at the park would increase the city's liability in the event of personal injuries sustained there. So, to curb the unwanted activities without having to add staff, the city devoted $91,000 to security upgrades, including biometric thumbprint scanners and numerous continuously recording cameras. As of December, after approximately five months of operation with the new access controls, more than 1,200 skaters had registered their thumbprints with the city, and numerous sources told the local North County Times that the problems had largely been solved.

"We had problems with loitering and so forth," Poway community services director June Dudas told the paper. "They were just people that were taking advantage of the opportunity to hang out at the skate park. With the security cameras installed now . . . and people knowing, 'Once I go into the skate park, you know who I am,' there's a lot more accountability."

Dudas added that aside from police investigations of specific crimes within the facility, scans collected there are used for no other purpose than to provide admittance. In fact, concerns on the part of facility users about personal data collection remain one of the primary reasons municipalities have shied away from biometrics, though such concerns may not be justified.

In most cases, the actual print or vein pattern collected during the initial enrollment can be discarded and replaced with a unique code, conceptually similar to a barcode. "There continues to be a lot of education about that with a lot of our visitors, because many of them were really uncomfortable with the thought of us having their personal information," Stiles says of Montgomery County's pilot program. "The thing that I always emphasize is that anyone who isn't comfortable with it doesn't have to do it. If they want to access the facility with an access card or a barcode, that's fine, too."

Stiles adds that a significant number of residents also expressed concerns about germs on the heavily used scanners, particularly during flu season, so the front desk staff ensures that hand sanitizer is always nearby.

Those accommodations, combined with the fact that users can often get through the access point quicker than they can with other access control systems, have already made biometrics popular with most Montgomery County residents, Stiles says. The system's potential - if biometrics were used at every controlled recreation run by the department - to save taxpayers upwards of $50,000 per year in costs associated with producing membership cards doesn't hurt, either. Says Stiles, "Not having to replace the printers and the print ribbons to make so many of those cards is where we would be getting the savings."

From a marketing perspective, biometrics can also help promote agendas toward environmental friendliness. "It's that green way of thinking," Plumer says. "The fact that we are using less product, both from a cost-savings perspective and an energy-savings perspective, has seemed to go over well with our users."

However, both Plumer and Stiles acknowledge that the scanners have not been flawless. Stiles says scanners have on occasion failed to recognize vein patterns, usually when the weather is at its coldest. And Plumer adds that though the overwhelming majority of users pass without trouble, failed scans are not altogether uncommon, especially among the youngest users (whose prints may not be as developed) and oldest users (whose prints may be somewhat worn). Failed prints require staff time to verify identification and permit access - a process that's no different than if a member forgets to bring in his or her membership card.

"When it scans well, the system works," Plumer says. "And with approximately 85 percent of our membership using it, it still may be better than everyone having to use a membership card."