Meeting the challenging security needs of parking facilities

Parking Spaces

Meeting the challenging security needs of parking facilities

Parking facilities—both outdoor lots and structures—represent a significant security challenge. Most facilities are easily accessible to the public. Many are open 24/7. And, they all share one thing in common: they attract large numbers of patrons and their vehicles—creating a highly tempting scenario for criminals.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more than 7 percent of violent victimizations in the United States occur in parking lots or garages— commercial, noncommercial or apartment/townhome facilities. More than 11 percent of property crimes occur in these same lots.

While there is a strong movement within parking industry to cut costs, often through creating automated, unmanned facilities, nearly all operators still feel a very real responsibility to protect the people and property that use their lots and garages.

There is no one-size-fits-all security package as parking facilities range from small outdoor lots to high-rise structures accommodating 10,000 vehicles to sporting venues with more than 20,000 spaces.

Yet there are best security practices that add value to parking facilities of any size and in any location. For a parking operator, the process begins by working with a security integrator with experience securing parking facilities.

Security Tools

All-hazards assessment. Before beginning a security plan, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the facility. Check out the surrounding neighborhood and traffic patterns. Monitor the daily routines of patrons. Identify danger zones in remote areas of lots and in garage stairwells and elevators.

After the assessment, look at the many security tools available to protect parking patrons.

Audio intercoms. Build audio intercoms into entry (and exit) gates to provide instant two-way communication with a security guard or facility operator.

Emergency stations. Although most parking patrons carry their own mobile phones, those devices can’t be counted on to work in many subterranean or concrete structures or even outdoors during severe weather. Mobile phones are also often the first target of thieves.

Emergency towers, wall-mount boxes or flush mounted stations are effective when placed throughout garages and larger lots. These units offer immediate audio assistance to visitors and help operators to assess an emergency situation. They can also integrate with an existing video surveillance system. Some emergency boxes and towers come equipped with built-in cameras to provide additional information for security personnel. These stations should be installed at frequent intervals and brightly lit to make them easy to locate and also act as a criminal deterrent.

These units can broadcast emergency announcements from parking facility operators or security personnel, as well as remotely unlock emergency doors for ingress of operator employees or first responders. Keep all exit doors locked to anyone else attempting to enter from outside of a garage.

Here’s the experience of one parking structure that added emergency communication stations. The operators of the unmanned, eight-level, downtown 1,700-space garage wanted the ability to receive and respond to simultaneous assistance calls, As with most parking lots and structures, this facility had no phone lines.

The security integrator guided the operator to a hardwired system (using Cat 6 cable) that ran from each call station to the main control room. The challenge for the integrator was running cable in a 40-yearold structure lacking pre-existing conduits. Also, the garage was open 24/7 and the installation couldn’t impact operations. The job took tight coordination with parking management, but the result was a higher level of patron security.

Access control. Access cards can provide monthly parkers the ability to open special lane gates at entries and exits. An access system also allows operators to know which vehicles of monthly patrons are present during an emergency. Limit pedestrian entries to the entry/exit gates and one other entry. Lock all other access points to the outside and install a keypad or card reader. That will save the cost of rekeying whenever keys are lost or stolen.

Video surveillance. Security cameras placed throughout a lot or garage can provide live, real-time video to assist security personnel in spotting potential or real problems and take action before they escalate. But realistically, few parking operators can afford a dedicated monitoring staff. Recorded video can be used to help resolve assaults, thefts, accident reports and other events after the fact.

It may make sense to record continuously during the day when the facility is busy. At night or at other quiet times recording may be triggered by motion detectors or analytics built into the cameras.

Work with the integrator to choose cameras capable of providing clear video under varying light conditions, especially in outdoor lots. And make sure to have enough cameras, properly placed, to avoid blind spots.

One more tip on cameras. Make sure they are easy to spot. Paint them a bright color; have a monitor showing a live feed at all entries and use signage to announce the facility is under video surveillance 24/7. Cameras can be one of the biggest deterrents to criminals.

Video analytics. Many parking facility operators are adding analytics to their camera/recording systems. One of the most common is license plate recognition software. LPR is being used to detect vehicles and count them as they enter and exit. By linking a credit card to a license plate number, monthly parkers could eliminate the need for a physical credential. Even pedestrian safety could be improved by not allowing gates to lower when a person is standing in its path.

Analytics can notify operators of cars that have been on the lot longer than expected and may be abandoned or those improperly parked or moving in the wrong direction. Other analytics would allow large-lot operators to get real-time data on vehicle counts, traffic patterns or other specific issues by using camera-equipped drones.

Once in place, all security equipment should be tested monthly to ensure it is functioning properly.

Design and Maintenance

Crime prevention through environmental design. CPTED offers relatively inexpensive ways to improve not only security, but also overall operations. Many of these steps will be identified during the all-hazards assessment.

Lighting is essential for both parking lots and structures. Dark areas conceal criminals. Properly lit areas deter them. But be careful not to go too bright as excess lumens may cause inverse blindness and traffic issues when people drive into or leave the facility at nighttime. The best approach is a uniform level of lighting across the lot or in the structure. Also have standby power ready to maintain lighting (and gate operation) during a power outage.

Make sure all soft- and hardscape (trees, bushes, fencing, gates, and bollards) are used to help restrict or channel access into or out of a lot and/or structure. At the same time, make sure these elements don’t block views of the facility from the street or provide a hiding place for criminals.

Lost or confused drivers and pedestrians become an easier target for criminals. Signage helps patrons locate additional parking, exits, elevators and emergency call stations. Make sure signs have clear and consistent messaging. Use colors, characters or other designs to help patrons locate their vehicles faster. The goal is to limit the time a patron is in the facility.

Create ways to completely close a structure to both vehicles and pedestrians when the facility is closed. And be sure to close off all hiding places beneath stairwells.

Some parking facilities are experimenting with sections reserved for women. These special areas are typically near exits or elevators so that women patrons can leave the facility faster and return to their vehicles more quickly.

Also, a well maintained facility sends a message that an operator is serious about the experience and safety of patrons. That means immediately removing graffiti, replacing burned out lights and repairing any damage from accidents. Criminals see a clean, wellmaintained facility as a sign that security is also likely a high priority.

In unmanned facilities install pay stations in open, well-lit areas. Also restricting machines to credit cards only can speed the payment process and lessen the need for cash—another temptation for criminals.

Dressing all facility personnel in uniforms will help patrons quickly identify them as a person to turn to in case of an emergency.

Safe and Secure

The sign, “Park at Your Own Risk,” found in many facilities has long been a fair warning to patrons. And while there are still intrinsic dangers built into a parking lot or garage, many operators have taken important steps to protect lives and property.

A parking facility designed to be safe and secure can become a selffulfilling prophecy. Criminals come to know those lots and garages that have emergency alarms, surveillance cameras, video analytics, and access control and provide a quick response to incidents. Those lots are avoided.

The public recognizes those facilities for creating a safer environment. As honest patrons fill the facility, criminals feel less comfortable.

Through proper design and the use of electronic security solutions, it is possible to minimize crime while promoting a welcoming environment for patrons of parking lots and structures.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Security Today.

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