Safeguarding Your Athletic Fields

Safeguarding Your Athletic Fields

Tips on keeping your field of dreams from becoming a liability nightmare

When I was a kid I would often head to the schoolyard after class for a pickup game of baseball or soccer. Even as an adult, I have gone jogging on my local high school track after work. While having easy access to these open fields was great for me, I wonder if those schools gave much thought to the liability of me being on their property.

Now that my job involves safety and security issues for K-12 and higher education institutions, it is something I caution school administrators about a lot. Protecting school property is not just about safety and security.

It is also about liability and risk management. While virtually all schools channel resources into protecting everyone in the building during school hours, it is also important that they protect their athletic fields after the bell has rung.

According to the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4), a leading research and education organization focused on threats and safety issues related to sports venues, “This forgotten period [when interscholastic athletics and after-school activities occur] remains a weak link in the safety and security planning of our nation’s schools with little, and in some cases, no understanding of the potential threats.”

To address this shortcoming, NCS4 offers school faculty and staff an extensive array of training courses as well as access to a knowledge base of best practices that can help them improve their safety and security position and mitigate risks. The partnership between NCS4 and a school often begins with a survey of students and parents to assess “the feeling of security” among its constituents.

From there, NCS4 works with the school to create a viable security plan that would include some best practices the school might consider adopting.

While the complete list of those school security best practices is too lengthy to enumerate here, I would like to highlight a few for your consideration.

Creating a Secure Barrier: Fencing and Lighting

An open field is essentially an open invitation for crime. And once someone is on your property, you could be held liable for anything that happens to them. So I would suggest all school sport fields be secured by at least a six-foot high, nine-gauge chain link fence with a lockable gate. And the fencing should allow no more than two points of entry.

This first line of safety and security can protect the site from random trespassers – whether a bunch of innocent kids gathering for a pickup game, a vandal intent on trashing the place, or even a vagrant looking for a place to bed down.

During practices, and on game day, a secure barrier can help school staff manage the flow of spectators, deny entry to banned individuals and prevent vehicles from driving onto the field and causing harm.

Keeping the area well lit is another important deterrent. Augmenting the enclosure with motion-triggered floodlighting effectively discourages anyone who might be contemplating scaling the fence after hours. And it saves the cost of keeping the lights on all the time.

Another best practice is to illuminate the parking lot during sporting events. You can program the lights to go on at dusk on a game night and stay on until an hour or so after the game concludes to give cars time to exit the lot.

From there, you can switch to motion-triggered lighting as a loitering or trespassing deterrent as mentioned above. Keep in mind that lighting should be adequate enough to illuminate people walking between and around parked vehicles.

Controlling Access: Keycards, Touchpads and Cameras

Many schools distribute master keys to faculty and staff authorized to open concession stands, equipment sheds, the announcer’s booth and other locked facilities used during athletic events.

The problem with this approach is that master keys get lost or retiring staff who leave the job forget to turn them in at the exit interview. So to maintain security, schools have to spend time and money recoring all the locks.

A best practice would be to replace those metal key systems with card readers and touchpad locks. Keycards can be quickly reprogrammed with a few keystrokes. If a card is lost, the school’s database administrator can simply go into the keycard file and disable that keycard’s ability to open any doors, preventing anyone who finds it from using it.

Alternatively, schools could forego the card readers in favor of touchpads, assigning authorized faculty and staff their own unique pin codes to unlock doors. When an employee is no longer privileged to access these facilities their pin code can easily be deleted from the system.

If running electricity to any of the locked facilities is a problem, there are battery-operated models of card readers and touchpads that can be easily installed.

Cameras can provide another layer of safety and security. I am not talking about the smartphones that family and friends are using to capture the action or even the broadcast cameras operated by the local TV station airing the game. I am referring to a few well-placed security cameras that can create a forensic history of the day’s or night’s events.

In addition to having a record of what is happening on the field of play, I would suggest cameras monitoring your transaction areas like the ticket booth and the concession stands as well as your high asset areas like the athletic equipment shed and the announcer’s booth with its expensive audio system.

Other areas you might consider keeping a camera’s eye on are the bleachers and the sidelines where incidents between fans can flare up in an instance. And then there are potentially problematic areas hidden from public view, like behind the bleachers and in back of structures where assaults or drug deals might occur without any visibility for security teams.

There are a number of camera types that can help you maximize your field of view while minimizing your camera count. As you explore your options, look for features like:

  • Wide angle and panoramic cameras to give you a broader field of view
  • Wide dynamic range technology to capture sharp images in shadow and bright sunlight
  • HDTV and megapixel resolution cameras that are so sharp they can capture the denomination of the bills exchanging hands at the concession stand or ticket booth
  • Multi-sensor cameras that can record events in multiple directions simultaneously

Implementing Advanced Preventive Measures: Analytics and Other Enhanced Technology

Because athletic fields are a tempting after-hours target for vandals, even a single trespass could leave you facing significant clean up and repair costs.

But there is another population that should concern you as well. Your fields can also be a tempting venue for weekend warriors to get a workout.

If they slip on a wet bleacher or trip on a rock, they might try to hold you liable, even if they did not have permission to be on school property. For schools with more generous budgets, there are additional technologies you could deploy to keep intruders out.

  • Dwell time analytics embedded in a camera can detect suspicious loitering and send an alert to school security or local police
  • Radar technology can provide additional information about detected objects that video cameras can’t – such as their exact position, and the speed and direction of their movement
  • Extremely lowlight sensors give cameras the ability to record fullcolor images in nearly complete darkness, saving the need to illuminate the field to capture intruder details
  • Cameras equipped with infrared capabilities are another option for nighttime surveillance
  • Thermal cameras can detect approaching intruders by their heat signature, even if they are camouflaged by darkness or hidden in shrubbery
  • In addition to sending alerts to security staff and/or local law enforcement, cameras and radar can also be configured to trigger a loudspeaker horn to broadcast a verbal warning that police are on their way, which hopefully would convince the would-be intruder to flee

Make Sure Your Athletic Fields are Part of Your School’s Security Management Program

It is time we recognize that unprotected athletic fields present significant liability issues for schools – whether it is hosting afterschool- hours athletic events or allowing the general public to use the school’s facilities and equipment without supervision.

In the first six months of 2019 alone, the United States recorded multiple violent crimes on school sports fields, reminding us of just how vulnerable these areas really are. If your school possesses athletic fields, their protection should be part of your overall school security management program.

Just as you deploy technology, policies and procedures to mitigate problems inside the school, you should apply the same level of security rigor to your athletic fields, where crimes often take place when school staff members are not present. Otherwise you may end up facing some major liability issues that you never expected.

This article originally appeared in the January / February 2020 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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