Parking Lots and Garages: Security Factors

Good parking lot design keeps employees, customers and guests safe. Here are the key principles for secure parking lots and garages at your business.

When the Ryder van blew up just after noon on Feb. 26, 1993, it rocked the World Trade Center, killing six people, wounding more than a thousand and leaving a hole more than 100 feet wide in the ground. Though we now know it mainly as a failed first attempt at destroying the World Trade Center buildings, the incident remains the worst event involving a parking garage to occur in the United States.

That event caused a significant rethinking of how buildings manage their parking, particularly what kind of vehicles are allowed to enter underground parking facilities. Coupled with the massive truck bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, it's little wonder that high-profile buildings now have stringent rules about who can park near them.

Also see a photo gallery of good and bad parking lot security design features

Thankfully, parking bombs are rare. If you type variations on "worst parking garage disasters" into search engines, you'll get photos of embarrassingly bad parking jobs or a video of a driver gunning the engine instead of hitting the brake and accidentally playing monster truck.

This unsafe parking elevator lobby has poor visibility

This unsafe parking elevator lobby has poor visibility

Instead, parking plagues CSOs in smaller ways, and close to a thousand times every day. That's how many muggings, car break-ins and other crimes occur in parking facilities across the United States every 24 hours. Parking security incidents rarely involve deaths, instead having a kind of drip effect that can wear down corporate security officers. (Photo credit: Bruce Ramm, Security Design Concepts, Inc.)

Customers who have incidents, or hear about them, look askance at where they are shopping. Employees wonder about their employers. It's CSOs' job to respond. Their most effective tools? "Visibility and surveillance are the two greatest deterrents to crime," says Paul Dubois, executive director of Tomasi-Dubois and Associates, a parking security adviser in Los Gatos, Calif.

E-Trade found this out firsthand when a rash of "car clouts"—thieves smashing car windows and taking things like stereos and loose items—occurred at complexes where it had offices in Alpharetta, Ga., and Sacramento.

"We had nobody physically attacked and no incidents of robberies," recalls Bob Luca, E-Trade's head of physical security from 1999 to mid-2007. "Just car clouts. But people were very upset about that. Employees want to feel safe when they go to work." Luca, now a candidate for sheriff in California's El Dorado County, says that E-Trade organized a multifaceted response. He was able to get local law enforcement to come take reports on the incidents, which Luca says can be difficult in larger jurisdictions and would be even harder to arrange now, given economic conditions.

As E-Trade expanded in Sacramento from one building to five, it ran into other parking lot issues. The lots, which were shared, were run by the company that managed the building, so there were limits to what E-Trade could do. (See related story Security in Multitenant Facilities: Good Neighbors Make Good Fences.) It could not put cameras on light poles, for privacy reasons. It could not erect fencing. It could and did put cameras on buildings so it could monitor the parking lot near its entrances. It also made sure that lighting met the standards specified by the principles of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), a methodology that develops wide-ranging guidelines for implementing design features intended to deter criminals.

The company also developed and began regularly posting items about better parking security on its intranets. These postings were largely commonsense tips such as, Don't leave packages or, heaven forbid, notebook computers sitting in plain sight in a car. At Christmastime, it sent out regular reminders that employees should not leave wrapped presents or shopping bags in their vehicles anywhere they could be seen.

Luca also sent his security personnel out to regularly walk the parking lots and look for unusual activity. He made sure there were two security personnel on duty at night, and employees were encouraged to ask for escorts to their cars. He worked to build strong relationships with local law enforcement so that they might be more likely to respond to incidents. After a gang was seen near remote parts of the lot, he was able to get local police to send cruisers by a couple of times a day. Although security's workload was increased, Luca was able to restore a sense of safety about parking to E-Trade employees.

Luca could have faced far worse. People have been kidnapped and even murdered in huge public parking lots at malls and casinos.

Parking Karma

Parking lots represent just one of the kinds of parking a company may have, along with underground and aboveground parking structures. Each create their own security challenges.

All CSOs must look at parking in context of operations. Basic questions include:

  • Where are the facilities located?
  • Do organizations that use the parking areas conduct sensitive research or host emotionally charged situations, a la courthouses?
  • Does the organization control its own parking?
  • Does the general public have access to the parking facilities?
  • Can parking be built anew, or is it already in place?
  • What are local ordinances?

Answering these questions will help CSOs figure whether their security risks around parking fall in the low, medium, high or "special" category. "The kind of criminal activity surrounding your site determines the level of security you want in your structure," says R. Bruce Ramm, president of Security Design Concepts in Orange, Calif. Ramm recommends checking with local police, who will have block-by-block crime statistics, instead of relying on general information for a larger area.

Also see Security Design and Architecture: Hidden Strengths

A high-security facility requires scanning cameras, people to watch those cameras, and regular security patrols, which can add $200 to $300 per space per year to corporate costs.

The "special" category might include iconic buildings. Federal buildings in general have higher-risk profiles than their nongovernmental counterparts—a parking garage next to a Veterans Administration building has higher security requirements than one next to a civilian hospital, for example. Buildings like courthouses and laboratories, especially animal laboratories, will have higher-risk profiles than plain vanilla corporate offices, says Mary S. Smith, senior vice president of Walker Parking Consultants in Indianapolis. She has also served on panels that established CPTED guidelines.

CSOs also need to look at the benefits of both "passive" security techniques, such as lighting and fencing, and "active" ones, such as security patrols.

Finally, it's best to overdesign from the start. Even if a parking facility doesn't need surveillance cameras or panic buttons right now, it's cheap to design-in the conduits needed to add them if the neighborhood changes for the worse. Including them when the strucutre is first built will run perhaps a few thousand dollars total—small potatoes compared to the $15,000 to $20,000 per space a parking garage can cost—but trying to retrofit an existing structure can get very costly, very quickly.

Parking Lots

Parking lots present the lowest risk of a bomb threat, since, as Wilson notes, a shock wave from a bomb in a parking lot will radiate in all directions, reducing the damage it can do. The big issue for parking lots comes from trying to keep people and cars visible. Large lots like those at shopping centers create problems because it's difficult to see the whole area, even with closed-circuit cameras, especially at night. Some malls have both lots and garages, which have lower visibility than lots alone unless they're properly designed. Putting up fencing or hedges around the perimeter of a parking lot can make it harder for people on foot to get in, but it also adds costs, and many fences are ugly. Plus, if you're a retailer, you typically want your parking lots easily accessible. Open parking means pedestrians, too, can get to stores. Installing fencing and traffic gates can help limit foot traffic, but it can also cause traffic problems.

Randall Atlas, vice president of Atlas Safety and Security Design in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says it comes down to the value of an investment. He notes that a mall parking lot in Boca Raton has seen a double murder and a kidnapping in the past few years, "and the middle- and upper-class moms stopped going." In contrast, he pointed to a mall in Miami that maintains a secure perimeter, with guards and patrols, and says it's seen as the place where the wealthy can safely shop.

For small parking lots near an office building or small retail operations, check with local police on crime statistics within a one- or two-block area. This will help you gauge what risks customers and employees—and their cars—will face when parking.

Brighter lights and stripes of reflective paint offer the most cost-effective ways to improve security in small lots. "The perception that a lot is unsafe generally comes from low lighting," says Dubois.

For large lots, Noli Alarcon, vice president of engineering at Timothy Haahs and Associates in Blue Bell, Pa., says CSOs should plan to employ security guards who patrol lots, either in vehicles or on foot. Cameras and people to monitor them also make sense, and he suggests that sidewalks can help reduce security issues.

In general, if a lot is already well lit and has good surveillance cameras, another way to beef up its security is to add active security personnel, says Dubois. "The key is good response" to incidents, he says.

Security Principles for Parking Garages and Structures

Atlas says the basics for parking garages are access-control gates, cameras, card readers, control boxes and an intercom, as well as blue light or "panic button" systems. Try not to put interior walls in the structures because such walls make good hiding places, advises Alarcon. Interior staircases also provide a haven for muggers, so he recommends that stairs be surrounded by glass so people are visible inside them. Likewise, elevators should be open and have a glass back, and lobbies should also be open. Alarcon says he always considers whether he'd feel comfortable if his teenager were parking in a structure he designed.

Fencing around the first floor provides a good low-level security tool, since it will force foot traffic through the car entrance, which can be staffed. For higher-security facilities, a brick wall on the first floor is harder to penetrate than a fence, and a level of fencing can be installed on top of it to thwart the use of ladders. Anti-climbing fencing and walls that tilt outward can be used to secure upper floors.

High-security buildings at a facility like a VA hospital require that a bomb not cause the parking structure to collapse into the hospital. A 40-foot-high parking structure either has to be 40 feet from the hospital or needs to have a blast wall. No blast wall can withstand a bomb like that used in Oklahoma City, so staff must be trained to monitor for these in the entrances. (Also see Bomb Threat Procedures.) In a mixed-use garage, some of the floors can be restricted to employee parking, limiting the potential for cars to be broken into or assaults to occur.

Underground Parking

Underground garages have the potential to create the most security problems. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing changed attitudes toward these facilities. "That was a catalyst to realize you can bring down an entire high-rise if you're not paying attention to what's going on in your garage," says Dubois.

In general, underground garages lack open sight lines, have enclosed staircases and require so many internal walls that it's costly to install enough cameras to keep an eye on all parts of the garage. But in densely populated areas, sometimes down is the only way to go to get parking.

The same security principles apply generally in underground garages as in parking structures.

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