LA Fitness Shooting Raises Safety Concerns at Health Clubs

Eventually, they came back. They came back to the place where they routinely work out, see old friends and enrich their lives. They came back to a renovated aerobics room complete with brightly colored walls, new mirrors and new flooring.

The doors reopened on Aug. 22 for members of the LA Fitness club in the Pittsburgh suburb of Collier Township, PA. The rest of the general public was welcomed two days later. Everything seemed back to normal.

Normal was the complete antithesis of the chaos that ensued in the club on Aug. 4. That night, a troubled member of the club named George Sodini entered that same aerobics room where about 20 women were taking a Latin impact dance class. With loaded guns in his gym bag, Sodini turned out the lights, took out the guns and fired at least three dozen shots, killing three women and wounding nine others before taking his own life.

Heidi Overmier, Elizabeth “Betsy” Gannon and Jody Billingsley were slain that evening. One of the women who was wounded but miraculously survived was class instructor Mary Primis, who told the women before the class that she was pregnant and that this would be her final night to teach. Primis, who was shot once in the shoulder and again in the back, pretended to be dead by lying still and holding her breath. Her baby was unharmed.

In the days following the tragedy, nearby clubs, both for-profit and nonprofit, offered temporary memberships to LA Fitness members. Neighboring businesses in the Bridgeville Great Southern Shopping Center raised money for the victims' families. All the while, white plastic sheeting covered the glass windows of the club, and memorials were placed outside its doors.

On the morning of Aug. 22, about 30 members waited outside the LA Fitness club. At 8 a.m., the sheeting was taken down, and the doors opened.

Some members said the club was as quiet as a library, even with the music playing overhead. Some members had mixed feelings about working out in the renovated aerobics room.

And some members made sure to check the location of the exits. For the first time, they had to think twice about the level of safety in their gym, an issue other club operators and members are facing as well.

What Could Have Been Done?

The consensus from club operators in the industry is that the LA Fitness shootings could have happened anywhere.

“We recognize the difficulty of guarding against the unforeseen damages of [last month's] tragedy involving the actions of a single troubled individual,” says Michael Sheehan, CEO of Bally Total Fitness, Chicago.

The troubled individual in this case, Sodini, was a 48-year-old single man who expressed on his blog the difficulties he experienced having relationships with women. Sodini circled the 8 p.m. Latin impact class as his target. No motives were reported against any woman in particular.

Sodini plotted the act several times and admitted to having tried it in January and in May before he “chickened out,” as he put it on his blog. On Aug. 4, the day of the shootings, Sodini entered the club three times, once at 11 a.m. and again at 7:40 p.m., leaving the club each time. Sodini re-entered the club for the last time at 7:56 p.m. and proceeded to carry out the murders.

During a previous visit to the club, someone showed Sodini how to turn off the lights in the aerobics room, unaware of Sodini's plans. It is not known whether that person was a club member or a staff member.

Because Sodini was an LA Fitness member and had access to the club, it made preventing this incident virtually impossible, some club operators say.

“We do have safety guidelines for our clubs, and I assume LA Fitness does, too,” says John Craig, brand development manager for Planet Fitness, Dover, NH. “But as we've seen over and over in mass shootings, it's difficult to stop an individual who's committed to carrying out an act like this.”

LA Fitness, an intensely private company (see sidebar on page 32) based in Irvine, CA, declined comment to Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro about its safety procedures and other details relating to the shootings. The company, instead, referred to a statement on its Web site, which reads: “We thank everyone for their support. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the victims and those who are now recovering.”

Most fitness facilities have some sort of security measures in place. Many clubs, especially 24-hour key-card club models, such as Anytime Fitness, Hastings, MN, and Snap Fitness, Chanhassen, MN, have surveillance cameras. In addition to cameras inside and outside its clubs, Anytime Fitness has emergency panic buttons, personal security devices and policies against “tailgating,” where a member hands his or her card to someone behind them after entering the club.

“You cannot enter a club unless you are a member, and you cannot enter if policies are violated,” says Mark Daly, national media director for Anytime Fitness. “Our staff is instructed not to let just anyone into the building. If they don't have the key, they don't get in.”

Many Lifestyle Family Fitness clubs have security cameras outside their buildings, says Lifestyle founder Geoff Dyer. Existing security measures at Lifestyle Family Fitness, St. Petersburg, FL, include requiring a government-produced photo ID for all members and one-day guest visitors. However, even those measures would not prevent an incident such as the LA Fitness shootings from reoccurring, Dyer says.

“Although this is an isolated incident, it does remind our members that there is a lack of security in our clubs,” Dyer says, “even though that lack of security exists in almost all public places.”

Security Guidelines

The last major for-profit health club shooting incident came in 1993 at a Family Fitness Center in El Cajon, CA. Four people were killed one October day before the gunman turned the gun on himself.

Lee Boyd worked in corporate sales and marketing for the club, owned by his mother, Ann Boyd, sister of Family Fitness Centers founder Ray Wilson. Lee Boyd was in the company's corporate office at the time of the shootings. He says the club industry needs to change its safety and security procedures.

“The industry has the responsibility to protect its members and co-workers from these incidents,” Boyd says.

Club operators have to be careful about how they secure their buildings and make members feel safe, experts say. Too many security measures may make members feel insecure, perhaps causing them to switch to another club, therefore costing a club some of its business.

The configuration of most clubs assumes staff will be on hand to ensure safety, and relies on channeling incoming and exiting members, plus an expectation of normal behavior among those members, says Hervey Lavoie, president of the architectural firm Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, Denver. With that in mind, Lavoie says clubs are not likely to take their access control measures to the level of airports or large sports stadiums and arenas, especially since some front desk staff members in clubs are low-paid employees.

Next page: LA Fitness Remains a Quiet, Successful Company

“Such an escalation in access control hardware and staff capabilities would dehumanize the whole welcoming component of the club experience and still not really solve the problem,” Lavoie says. “Would a metal detector and a turnstile have really prevented [Sodini] from storming the gates and unleashing [his] fury on the innocents within?”

John White is the president and principal consultant of Protection Management LLC, a security consulting company based in Chico, CA. White says most companies don't want to install metal detectors for security, citing cost and other business concerns. Some club owners will likely take a wait-and-see approach about changing their security systems, he says.

“No one saw this coming,” White says about the LA Fitness shootings. “Who would have thought that anybody would walk into a fitness center and commit a crime like this? Thankfully, there hasn't been a copycat person out there yet.”

Club owners may install surveillance cameras inside and outside their buildings, but sometimes cameras can give members a false sense of security, White says, adding that cameras are most useful if they have people monitoring them. Surveillance cameras at a nearby pizza shop recorded video of LA Fitness members entering the restaurant's back doors in a panic, looking for places to hide.

In the end, club owners do not have to spend thousands of dollars on electronic devices to upgrade their security, White says. Instead, they can add new door locks, keep to a minimum the shrubbery outside the club and increase lighting, especially in the parking lot.

White says staff should keep a close eye on members coming into clubs and look for clues about odd behavior. The fact that Sodini asked someone to show him how to turn off the lights in the aerobics room is an example of such a red flag, he says.

Jeffrey Walker, the director of the Licking County (OH) Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, says that in the event of an emergency, it's important that a club employee have all the pertinent information needed to make a 911 call, including the exact address of the building and the nature of the emergency, and stay on the line until the dispatcher has obtained all the information.

If a shooting incident occurs, staff should direct members to the nearest exits and be aware if an exit is blocked, White and Walker say. Members who were in the club at the time of the LA Fitness shootings credited LA Fitness staff for calmly leading them to the exits of the club safely.

As of late August, LA Fitness had not been named in any lawsuits, although three of the surviving shooting victims had filed suit against Sodini's estate. The lawyer representing the victims did gather subpoenaed information from LA Fitness as well as local authorities. The information from LA Fitness included security procedures and past accidents and crimes at the club. LA Fitness also was asked to turn over or preserve the actual light switch Sodini used in the aerobics room.

“There's going to be all sorts of people that are going to ‘Monday morning quarterback’ what happened in this incident,” White says. “It's a tragedy, and it's going to get that type of exposure.”

LA Fitness Remains a Quiet, Successful Company

In the wake of last month's shootings at one of its clubs in the Pittsburgh area, LA Fitness, Irvine, CA, has been thrust into the glare of a spotlight no company would want. That's especially true of LA Fitness.

Since it was founded in 1984, LA Fitness has remained an intensely private company, one that is reluctant to share any information publicly, even though it is one of the largest and most successful companies in the club industry. As of mid-August, LA Fitness had 314 clubs open in 21 states and Canada — where there are five clubs in the Toronto area — with an additional 13 clubs in pre-sale. It is estimated that LA Fitness has more than 1 million members in North America. (LA Fitness should not be confused with LA Fitness in the United Kingdom.)

LA Fitness takes on the persona of its founder, Chin Yi, a Korean-born immigrant who came to the United States when he was a boy. One industry insider called Yi an American success story. Another insider called Yi a recluse, comparing him to Howard Hughes. Since the tragic shootings on Aug. 4, the company has responded to media inquiries only through statements on its Web site.

In addition to its executive management team, LA Fitness is owned by three main investment companies: Seidler Equity Partners, Marina del Ray, CA; CIVC Partners, Chicago; and Madison Dearborn Partners, Chicago. Seidler Partners has been with LA Fitness since 1998, and CIVC Partners joined the company in the early 2000s. In 2007, Madison Dearborn acquired a 20 percent stake in LA Fitness for a reported $600 million.

The strategy of LA Fitness is to acquire and operate underperforming clubs. That strategy helped the company flourish in the 1990s. In 1995, LA Fitness designed and built a 45,000-square-foot club that has become the signature model for the company. Typically, LA Fitness clubs range from 20,000 to 60,000 square feet.

Although LA Fitness has more than 60 clubs in Southern California and more than 40 clubs in Florida, the company has a strong contingent of clubs in the Northeast, with more than 40 clubs in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania combined. A majority of those clubs are in the Philadelphia area.

LA Fitness has a strong presence in the Atlanta area as well. In 2000, the company acquired a 22-unit chain in Atlanta called Australian Body Works. Recently, LA Fitness made a $200,000 bid through the bankruptcy proceedings of Crunch, New York, to purchase the membership base of a Crunch location in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta.

Fitness Clubs Have Several Options to Enhance Security

No fitness club can be made 100 percent secure, says Philip Farina, founder and CEO of Farina and Associates Ltd., San Antonio, a firm that focuses on hospitality security and risk management. However, club owners can reduce the amount of risk that their members face, he says.

“A criminal looks at a potential target and evaluates the risk involved with their intended action versus the reward or benefit that they will attain if completed successfully,” Farina says. “In any security program of this type, even small improvements can make a big difference.”

According to Farina, health club operators can enhance their security and safety programs by doing the following:

• Develop and revise emergency evacuation plans that address fires, bomb threats, active shooters and natural disasters

• Do employee background investigations and pre-employment screenings for all existing and future staff

• Create security and safety rules for staff and customers

• Establish a “zero tolerance” policy for acts of violence

• Conduct security awareness training for staff

• Secure building design and construction

• Add surveillance systems and access control devices

Next page: Family Fitness Center Shootings Claimed Five Lives in 1993

Family Fitness Center Shootings Claimed Five Lives in 1993

Lee Boyd and Guy Bridges remember the day when a gunman killed four people at a Family Fitness Center in El Cajon, CA, before he turned the gun on himself.

Neither Boyd nor Bridges were inside the club when the incident occurred on Oct. 14, 1993, in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego. The club was owned by Ann Boyd, sister of Family Fitness Centers founder Ray Wilson.

Lee Boyd worked in corporate sales and marketing for the club and was in the company’s corporate office at the time of the shootings. Bridges was a manager at the club who just happened to be two blocks away setting up a promotion when the shootings occurred.

“When I arrived back at the fitness center, it looked like a ‘drive-by’ shooting,” Bridges recalls. “Windows were broken out, and there were dead people lying on the sidewalk, in the lobby and in a car parked in front of the club. A horrible scene. It is a day that I remember very vividly.”

The gunman was 19-year-old James Buquet, who, like LA Fitness gunman George Sodini, had deep personal issues. Buquet lifted weights at the club but was depressed after finding out a knee injury would require surgery and curtail his workout routine. Although he had a history of mental illness and drug abuse, there was no motive for the shootings.

During the noon hour that day, Buquet killed one person on the sidewalk as he approached the club. He then killed three more people inside, went back to his car and killed himself. Of the four people Buquet killed, two were Family Fitness Center employees.

“This was truly one of the saddest days in our lives,” Lee Boyd says. “We lost friends we saw on a daily basis and employees who we considered extended family because they shared our lives with us.”

The club was closed for several days. Walls were repainted and new carpet was installed. Boyd said his mother was skeptical that the club would stay in business after the incident. Yet the day the club reopened, Boyd says, the club had more membership sales than it had in the previous 90 days.

“Some new business customers came down,” Boyd recalls, “and said, ‘We were thinking about buying one already, and we wanted to show our support for the company and the community.’”

No Need for LA Fitness to Change its Name, Expert Says

Even though LA Fitness has not been held accountable for the tragic shootings in one of its clubs on Aug. 4, some people may wonder how the tragedy will affect its brand name, which has been around for a quarter of a century.

Robert Passikoff, founder of the New York-based consulting firm Brand Keys, says LA Fitness risks the notion that it will always be associated with the shootings and that it should consider the option of changing its name.

“Sometimes there is such visceral damage to the brand—whether it’s the brand’s fault or not—that any attempt at branding as usual would be a Band-Aid remedy, and so you are better off walking away and starting fresh,” Passikoff tells ABC News. “It is easier to establish a neutral name than to repair the old name.”

Derek Barton, who was the director of marketing for Gold’s Gym International from 1985 to 2005, disagrees with Passikoff’s comments, saying LA Fitness has too strong a brand for it to change its name.

“Six months from now, people across the country will forget the name of the gym where the shootings in Pittsburgh took place,” says Barton, who now runs his own marketing business. “LA Fitness has spent a lot of time and money over the years building a very strong brand that is popular and well respected. There is no reason to change the entire name of the gym chain because of one incident that they had no control over.”

Family Fitness Centers kept its name after the 1993 shootings in its El Cajon, CA, club, which claimed the lives of four people plus the gunman.

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