The events of Sept. 11 have heightened security concerns everywhere, including recreation centers

A succession of government warnings in the months following Sept. 11 regarding possible terrorist attacks on American soil has sown fear and uncertainty into the psyches of people everywhere. In order to reassure the public of their efforts to prevent the worst from happening, federal and state facilities - airports, banks, courthouses and law-enforcement centers among them - have been quick to upgrade their security measures, through the addition of National Guardsmen, bomb-sniffing dogs and personal searches, as well as metal detectors and scanners. To a lesser degree, many municipal buildings have followed suit.

But while much attention has been given to the places Americans conduct business, in many cities, little - if any - regard has been shown for the places where they visit, relax and recreate.

"Sept. 11 happened and I think every community sort of looked around and asked, 'What's our exposure?' " says Keith Hayes, a principal at Denver-based Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. "That's not to say that most facilities don't already have measures in place and that they're not being vigilant about their susceptibility to certain dangers. But we're trying to make recreation centers bright and inviting, and security usually conveys a feeling of darkness and impenetrability."

By design, many elements of recreation centers - and for that matter, most public gathering places, including community centers, water parks and college student centers - directly contrast those found in more utilitarian public buildings, such as courthouses and city halls. Wide, open lobbies and hallways, colorful interior finishes and extensive glazing are common features that make users of recreation centers feel welcome. While completely doing away with the personal touches that draw customers certainly sounds like an extreme measure, some say that it's time operators undertake a serious assessment of their facilities and determine how to best provide both a high level of service and security.

"The success of public recreation facilities is based on the fact that they are facilities people feel safe and comfortable using," says Ken Ballard of Ballard*King & Associates, a recreation facility planning and operations consulting firm based in Highlands Ranch, Colo. "As soon as that perception goes away, whether it's because of terrorism or anything else, you're going to lose the edge and people are simply going to say, 'That may be a great facility, but I don't feel comfortable going there anymore.' It doesn't have to be based on reality; it's the perception. That's what terrorism is all about: it's the fear that you could be next."

How do recreation facility operators maintain the perception of safety without sacrificing a facility's community appeal. Hayes says, surprisingly enough, it all starts with the staff. "If, when I walk in and whether they know me or not, they reach out and shake my hand or say, 'Hi, how are you. How can I help you?', that center's going to be a safe center."

Steve Whipple, recreation administrator for the city of Boulder, Colo., and director of the East Boulder Community Center, has found this security measure both effective and inexpensive. "The easiest fix is to make your staff more visible," he says, adding that since Sept. 11, his staff has increased the frequency of their safety walks through the center, which has helped deter longtime problems of vandalism, voyeurism and theft. "That presence prevents a lot of things from happening."

For some facilities, increasing that presence has meant hiring security guards or local law enforcement officers to help patrol, a move that is long overdue, according to Judith Leblein, operations and marketing consultant for Water Technology Inc., a Beaver Dam, Wis.-based aquatic design and engineering firm. "For years, we've relegated everybody to looking like Ranger Rick. We didn't want people to think they were in danger, so we've tried to make our police look like gate attendants," she says. "I think now we need to see security people in uniforms, either in traditional blues or in shirts that clearly say 'security' or 'police' across the back."

Such is the case at Rockford (Ill.) Park District's Magic Waters, where police officers regularly patrol the facility's parking lots and help staff check for weapons and alcohol at the water park's front gate.

Facility entrances and control points, in particular, deserve more attention now than ever, says Hayes. "We work very hard to convince our clients to go with one main entrance and one main control point," he says. "By adding a second entry you're creating a staffing mess and you're always going to have problems with people sneaking in."

Even one control point can be difficult for a staff to monitor - especially if, as at many rec centers, it handles registration and point-of-sale purchases, in addition to facility access. "You can have a lot of stuff going on and if you're constantly busy, you can lose track," says Hayes. "We haven't designed the perfect control counter yet, but we keep trying."

Ballard believes the time has come for facility operators to move beyond merely maintaining an eye on who enters the building. "It's a terrible thought, but not only do we need to worry about who's coming into and going out of our facilities, but we also need to worry about what they are bringing into the facility," he says. "Some of the things you see going on in Israel - bombings in public places - if that were ever to start here in the United States, you'd have to be concerned, especially in some of the more prominent recreation centers, where there are large numbers of people at any given time. Just as schools or government buildings could be targets, recreation centers could be, as well."

That's why recreation facilities need to begin preparing for worst-case scenarios, says Ballard. "At least in theory, you'd better start dealing with the question of how you're going to react to such a situation," he says. "We're never going to be able to handle everything. But we need to make sure that we're being as prudent as we can to make our facilities safer." Every recreation facility should already have an emergency management response plan in place, in coordination with local police, fire and emergency response agencies. But if those plans fail to outline how to respond to such post Sept. 11-scares as bomb threats or bioterrorism, operators should take the time to make necessary updates.

In its off-season, Magic Waters' staff worked with local fire and police departments to revise that facility's emergency response and evacuation procedures. "At one time, our plan was generic: we have an emergency, we're going to evacuate," says Kim Adams-Bakke, Magic Waters' general manager. "We realized that we needed to address situations such as chemical spills, releases of violent gas and armed robberies, in addition to tornadoes and lightning. We had to be more specific."

One night a week, with as many as 1,500 guests in the water park, AdamsBakke's staff conducts drills for a variety of emergency scenarios. "The guests don't mind too much. We let them know ahead of time that it's going to happen," she says. "We learned really quick, when we were trying to move our guests around, where our weak points were and what we could do better. That practice has been really helpful."

Just as a facility needs the assistance of local emergency management agencies when upgrading its security readiness, it also needs the support of its city council. In years past, when Whipple's staff would request funds for additional surveillance cameras or increased staff presence to counter problems of parking-lot theft, locker-room voyeurism and vandalism, there was a good chance those requests would be met with denials. Says Whipple, "Since Sept. 11, that has changed."

Boulder's city council recently mandated that the facility asset management department implement a consistent level of security for all of the city's public buildings, including recreation centers. A number of suggestions have been made to bring the 12-year-old East Boulder Community Center up to date, including a redesign of the front desk, the addition of security cameras and mirrors, and the installation of a limited-access ID card system. "We're looking at everything, and nobody's saying no anymore," says Whipple, who adds that despite the city's willingness to address security concerns at the center, whatever upgrades the facility chooses need to be financially feasible.

That can be difficult, given the rising costs of some of today's more popular security devices. "The technology isn't cheap," says Hayes, who estimates the cost of a six- to seven-camera closed-circuit video surveillance system at $25,000 to $30,000. "It piles up fast, and when you're building a new facility, the money's tight. If the standard of care suddenly requires that you have metal detectors or closed-circuit camera systems for your facility, I suspect rec departments will be forced to shut down programs."

Short of a complete overhaul of a facility's programming, there are a number of technological offerings that can beef up a rec center's security without overextending its budget. Panic exit doors and delay locks have long been used in recreation centers to prevent unauthorized entry and exit and help control fee collection.

Now available are small exit switches using passive infrared detection that can be mounted in a doorway, unlocking a door from the inside as a person approaches the sensor. Most individuals are unlikely to notice the device, which can be connected via relay output to an audible signal located at a facility's control point. Available for less than $200, this product can help facility operators keep track of visitor entry and exit without the use of camera or ID card systems.

One product that is becoming more popular for keeping track of children indoors and out is a personal locator wristband that runs on global positioning system (GPS) technology. Available from several different manufacturers for an average of $400 per wristband, the personal locator can be integrated with a facility's telephone line or computer with Internet access. Because its range is similar to that of a cell phone, the product's GPS software can locate the wearer of the wristband miles away in only minutes.

Leblein compares the personal locator to LoJack, a radio frequency-based stolen vehicle recovery system used by law enforcement agencies. "The technology to protect kids from getting snatched is becoming affordable," she says. Personal locators are popular at large amusement parks and indoor play centers, which usually rent them out to parents at $5 to $10 a day. Operators of public recreation centers and water parks are also likely to begin offering their patrons this service as their facilities increasingly become larger and more complex.

As security technology becomes more focused on tracking capabilities, a host of legal questions come into play, particularly those regarding the privacy rights of individuals in public facilities. While the level of security in recreation centers has yet to rival that existing in airports, facility operators should be prepared for a variety of comments from their patrons about privacy should that change. "How long before you log on to your community recreation center's web site, and based on the last three classes you took, it'll start to tell you to take advantage of certain activities? It becomes sort of a Big Brother thing," says Hayes. "Some people will think it's cool, but others won't."

"Are you going to be able to handle complaints from the public that either say, A: 'You're too controlling,' or B: 'How can you ensure the safety of my visit to your facility?' " asks Ballard. "You might have to implement some sort of system where you have to check every person's gym bag as they enter the facility. But you may have to back off because people find the way you do things is too oppressive."

Despite the fine line, Whipple says his facility's patrons appreciate the added focus on security. "Parents want to make sure that when they drop their kids off, they're safe," he says. "You hear that all the time. We don't want people to say, 'I don't feel like this facility is safe for my kid anymore.' "

Recreation facility operators would be wise to invite input from their patrons, as specific security risks in each community will vary. Unfortunately, none are exempt from this self-assessment process, as threats of terrorism can hit rural and suburban areas just as easily as they can urban locales.

"They're not pleasant things to think about," says Ballard. "But we have a standard of care within the industry, and we need to realize that we're in an everchanging world. I shudder to think what we could be having conversations about five years from now. We're fooling ourselves if we don't at least go through some planning efforts and ask ourselves, 'What if.' The risks are simply too great."