How to Protect Your Parking Structures

Visibility, lighting, access control, electronic security technology, effective signage and good patrol techniques are the basic elements of a secure parking garage.

Parking structures can be a great boon to any campus. If done improperly, it can turn into a boondoggle. Looking beyond efficient land use, parking structures have also been the source of numerous problems. Avoiding such problems will require judicious planning and a concerted effort to fitting all pieces of this complex puzzle together in the right order.

There is one great truth that all campuses can agree upon: land is expensive. Anything that can provide more space in a smaller footprint will be greatly appreciated, particularly in expensive urban environments. Thus it follows that a world once dominated by vast parking lots will ultimately yield to the creation of above-ground or underground parking structures.

They can be hot spots for criminal acts that range from vehicle break-ins to sexual assaults. Avoiding such problems will require judicious planning and a concerted effort to fitting all pieces of this complex puzzle together in the right order.

The security plan should seek both the feeling and reality of safety and security. Legitimate users of a parking facility who do not feel safe will seek their services or employment opportunities elsewhere. Institutional bottom lines will drop accordingly.

Parking structures should deter crime by making criminals feel trapped, out of place and on display. Failure to stop criminal acts will result in injuries, lawsuits and other direct assaults on institutional health. This article will explore a variety of security options and design features that will lower the risk of crime in any multi-level parking facility. It’s a win-win opportunity, where doing the right thing is also good for business.

It would be nice if every campus could start from scratch with the sufficient budget to create the ideal parking structure. Most institutions, however, will need to live with older designs. This article will divide its focus to explore ideal design elements for new structures along with the tools needed to upgrade existing ones.

Incorporate Visibility in Structure Design
Maximum visibility is the key to parking structure security. Planners should discourage any design feature that creates blind spots or potential hiding places. “Maximum internal visibility” must be the mantra of any team tasked with the design or improvement of parking facilities.

New Construction:

  • Favor designs that maximize interior visibility
  • Favor support columns over retaining walls
  • Avoid architectural features that block the view of adjacent stalls, lanes or levels
  • Eliminate blind spots and potential hiding places
  • Favor open stairways over enclosed stairwells
  • Opt for external glass walled elevators offering a view into the cab
  • Avoid designs with blind alcoves and secluded or recessed areas
  • Avoid designs with long blind hallways
  • Avoid hiding places and secluded areas around the exterior
  • Create opportunities for surveillance into and out of the structure
  • Create legitimate activities inside the structure such as glass-walled office spaces
  • Favor high ceilings for better lighting and visibility, particularly on the first floor
  • Limit surrounding landscaping to low growth plants no higher than two feet
  • Select trees that will not block area surveillance or light distribution
  • Clear visual obstructions along transit routes leading to and from the structure

Parking Structure Retrofit:

  • Replace stairwell doors with glass doors
  • Clean, upgrade, maintain
  • Install acrylic flat panel mirrors to aid visibility in blind areas
  • Fence off or enclose alcoves and potential hiding places
  • Remove or replace landscaping elements that block view or light distribution
  • Paint walls and support structures with white reflective paint
  • Upgrade lighting and electronic security measures

Limit Escape Routes to Discourage Criminals
Did you ever wonder what a criminal looks for in selecting one parking structure as a potential target over another? Lack of access control will appear high on that list. Criminals look for opportunities with multiple entry points and escape routes. This improves their chances of success while lowering their risk of getting caught.

  • Resolve this problem by limiting the number of vehicle and pedestrian entrances and exits to the fewest possible. Entrances should be located in areas where the event is likely to be observed.
  • Dedicate non-essential doors as emergency exits
  • Use glazing or fencing material to allow visibility without allowing access
  • Use coated tubular metal or welded wire fence material to enclose open spaces.
  • Use glazed exterior doors to maximize visibility

Appropriate Signage Deters the Bad Guys
Signs clearly demonstrate ownership and control of parking facilities. Way-finding features make it more difficult for criminals to use the common excuse that they are disoriented and looking for their car.  Also, they prevent legitimate users from getting lost, which makes them less vulnerable to criminals.

Signs can include any of the following:

  • Rules of the parking area
  • Entry and exit direction signs
  • Maps that help orient visitors to stairs, elevators and exits
  • Color markings, symbols and numbers to clearly identify each parking level
  • Clear identification of the location of emergency phones and emergency exits

Deploy Cameras, Alarms and Call Boxes

The most valuable electronic systems for parking structures include video surveillance systems, emergency door alarms and emergency call boxes.

  • Video surveillance cameras should be placed at all entrances and exits to the structure, including emergency exits. They should also be placed in secluded or problem areas.
  • Cameras at vehicle entrances and exits should be able to capture readable license plate images and, if possible, a recognizable image of the driver
  • Cameras at pedestrian entrances should be located at narrow choke points and have lighting and image quality that allow facial identification
  • Emergency exit doors should be equipped with a local alarm and sign stating that opening the door will cause the alarm to sound
  • Emergency call boxes should be located on each floor. They should be clearly marked with signs and blue lights to mark their position.
  • Having cameras monitored at a central campus security operations center can optimize the use of security personnel
  • Video analytics can assist monitored systems by calling operator attention to potential problems

Paint Walls White and Deploy Appropriate Lights
Lighting is a critical tool for preventing crime and creating a feeling of safety. Key lighting features should include the following:

  • Adopt an all white light standard using light sources with a color temperature at or above 4,000 degrees Kelvin
  • Chose light fixtures that bathe adjacent walls with light
  • Paint walls, support structures, piping and conduit with white, highly reflective paint. This will increase reflectivity, background contrast and improve illumination by more than 33 percent.
  • Exterior lighting should illuminate both foreground and background objects around the structure along with the building façade
  • Efficient white light sources include fluorescent tube, mini-fluorescents, LED, induction and metal halide
  • Increase lighting in all blind or problem areas

Security Staff Must Interact With Public
If used properly, security patrols can be the most flexible of all security options. The degree of their effectiveness will depend on proper officer selection, tactics, training and deployment.

  • Rule #1: Security officers cannot be effective without being seen
  • Rule #2: Friendly interaction ensures officer effectiveness

Friendliness works with equal effectiveness for customer service and crime prevention. These techniques reduce liability along with potential violence.

  • Choose friendly outgoing security officers with good listening skills
  • Have officers use the 10-5 rule. At 10 feet, officers make eye contact and give a smile and nod of recognition to all persons they encounter. At 5 feet, they offer a short greeting.
  • Officers should be friendly and offer assistance when encountering suspicious persons.
  • Officer training should be ongoing and interactive. Role playing and supervisory assistance will help officers achieve a comfort level with these techniques.

Patrol patterns in parking structures should be difficult to predict. Varying patrol times and routes, and using friendly interaction can make officers appear omnipresent.

  • Elevators can be helpful in randomizing patrol. Officers can appear on any floor with the option of going up or down.
  • Patrol routes should be made in areas where officers can see and be seen
  • Patrol vehicles should favor those with a vertical riding position. Vehicles like the Segway require the rider to assume a standing position. These vehicles draw attention to the officer while maximizing the officer’s ability to survey his or her patrol area. Most will adapt well to pedestrian environments including elevators.
  • Use of electrical vehicles will require a substantial training program to cover vehicle operation, policy, procedure and safety considerations

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About the Author


Jim Grayson is a senior security consultant. His career spans more than 35 years in law enforcement and security consulting. He worked for UCLA on a workplace violence study involving hospitals, schools and small retail environments and consulted with NIOSH on a retail violence prevention study.Grayson’s diverse project experience includes schools, universities, hospitals, municipal buildings, high-rise structures and downtown revitalization projects. He holds a degree in criminal justice and a CPP security management credential from ASIS. He is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer on a wide range of security topics.He can be reached at Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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