The Key to Locking Out Theft

There is no one key that locks theft out of the realm of possibilities. Bert Thompson knew that when he tagged all the equipment that powers A.S.T. Landscape Services, Inc. In addition to registering serial numbers, Thompson pop-rivets metal tags to each machine in an area that is not obvious as a backup to the serial-number system. Put to the test, his security measures paid off recently when four power units were stolen from a trailer parked in front of an upscale site. Soon after, his backpack blower was identified at a pawnshop, where a thief was turning one over every day for a month. When Thompson showed up at the pawnshop with his receipts, serial numbers and tags, he was prepared to show where the pop rivets were in case the tag and factory serial number that's imprinted on each unit was destroyed.

A FENCE IS NOT ENOUGH

You know the combination: chain link fence, padlocked chain gate closure; same on site, padlocked trailers, even with equipment inside cable-locked together. Why does it happen? Because bolt cutters happen, and timing and employee mistakes and turnover and a myriad of other reasons from the economy to human frailty. Whatever the reasons, prevention and preparedness is the key combination to strong barriers against theft.

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Thompson concurs with other landscape contractors and golf club administrators that having a fence is not enough. Everything gets locked up in a warehouse or storage shed, too. Paul Mayes, director of Golf Course Maintenance Operations at the PGA of Southern California at Oak Valley considers the fact that the maintenance facility is so far back off the beaten track helps conceal equipment from potential thieves. The club is further protected by an outside security company system, which is not an option in the middle of Wyoming. So when a couple of micro injectors walked away from Green Turf Lawnscapes, Inc. in Worland, Wyo., a few years ago, owner Todd Graus decided it was time to put a system in place that prevented the possibility of theft from inside and outside of his company. His first line of defense was a locked chemical storage area that could be accessed only by managers or technicians who needed the chemicals.

Inside the storage unit are two large 8- × 8- × 4-foot cabinets. They are wire-screened-in so contents are visible but not accessible. The security lock/key system that Graus chose requires that only the locksmith who sold him the key can make a copy of it. Taking it to another county or town to have a copy made would do no good.

The second safeguard is accountability. An inventory system accounts for chemicals going in and chemicals going out. Graus describes, “When it comes to work orders, if there are items like micro injectors for tree injections, we know exactly how many are going to each property so we know exactly how many are needed to be coming out of our inventory that day. If more are taken out of the inventory, then they should be accounted for somewhere else on the work order, saying that we had to use an extra one. Likewise, sometimes you waste one. So we make sure we keep a count. We know exactly what we need. And it's the best way to keep employees accountable.”

Similarly, changes were made after the high cost of chemical vandalism cleanup and theft nearly wiped out Rasmussen Spray Service, Inc in Salem, Ore. Secretary Debbie Ego confirms that since then, all trucks are in a garage, all garage doors were changed from wooden to metal and a security system was installed. The chain-link fence with barbed wire on top was not an affective deterrent. So the key for Rasmussen is zero exposure of chemicals, which are stored in locked metal storage containers with nothing inside the office or shop and nothing but water left in the trucks at night.

POLICING THE AREA

You don't have to go it alone if thinking like a thief is not your usual mind set. Most city police departments offer inspections as part of their community services or crime prevention unit. They arrive with a checklist specific to businesses on best practices for chemical storage, general property improvements, landscaping, locks and lighting. Many have been trained in CPTED (an acronym for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design), a program that applies architectural and design concepts to crime prevention even before building or remodeling a commercial property.

Tim Thomason, Crime-Free Programs coordinator for the police department in Columbia, Mo., says the physical design of a property can deter criminal activity. “With commercial-style properties, we typically look from the outside in and start on the adjoining properties. We look at aerial photos. There was a business that was having purse snatchings in the parking lot. What physical event was occurring to allow that to be inevitable to thieves? The adjoining property owner had a fence that had a hole in it. So robbers were running from point A to B through that fence.” From around the property, focus shifts to the property itself, the parking lot layout, the landscape design, the location and size, types of trees, bushes and berms, and any other visible impairment objects, the location of windows, security cameras, front desks, doors, placement of dumpsters, lighting on the outside of the building, landscaping and lighting and access control, how many entrances and exits there are, whether into the parking lot or into the business itself. Specific to landscape businesses, Thomason says he “looks for ways to eliminate vehicular access to those points where shrubs or trees can be carried away and increase the distance from where cars can be. All are big issues with prevention in environmental design.” He suggests that landscapers can uphold their decorative theme with wrought iron fences around their businesses that allow visibility of the vegetation but are hard to manipulate.

“Operation ID” is another option available through police departments. You mark items with an engraver, on loan, with a number unique to your business, display a sticker that tells burglars that your property is marked, and keep a list of the marked property in a safe place.

KEEPING AN EYE OUT

Less labor-intense is the alarm system approach, such as that installed at Grasshopper Lawns Inc. in Larksville, Penn. In addition, there are 24-hour digital security cameras throughout. “As for our vehicles, we use Fleetboss GPS to track all vehicle movement, stops and speeds,” Vice-President Michael Kravitsky IV explains. “These devices not only help to keep people honest, they also can verify where and how long they were on the job.”

Just the sight of a surveillance camera can deter criminal activity. But if employee theft is suspected, wireless camera devises can be installed inconspicuously in pagers, houseplants or toolboxes.

EMPLOYEE THEFT

Though moonlighting with business equipment may occur, overall, Todd Graus sees falsifying time records as the main occurrence of employee theft. He provides strict regulations regarding when to clock in and out at the end of the day, which helps employees be accountable. Graus is aware of the tendency for workers to want to sit and wait for a buddy to finish up a chore buts insists on them clocking out first. Efficiency also is monitored. “Technicians know how much time they have to get work done. We are able to do efficiency ratings on every employee on a daily basis to find out if they are being efficient and what they are doing.”

Since the recent theft that Bert Thompson has experienced, he has added a few cautionary practices. It is now policy that when an employee leaves — on good terms or not — all combination locks on equipment are changed. When he does spot visits on site, he not only inspects the work of the crew, but makes sure trailers are locked, cables on equipment inside of the trailer are in use and that if the trailer has a side door, makes sure that it faces the property being worked on.

“Perhaps we'll never stop it,” Thompson concludes, “just hope to deter them, slow them down to where they get caught or discourage them to not mess with it.”

Clare Ann Adrian is a freelance writer who resides in Columbia, Mo.

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