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Consider this before arming your security officers

Healthcare Security and Emergency Management, August 1, 2004

When Tony York, CHPA, CPP, worked as director of security in 1999 for Hospital Shared Services in Denver, he experienced the death of one of his security officer after an out-of-control patient wrestled away the officer's gun.

The patient struck the security officer across the back with a wooden stool and then fled the hospital, York recalls. The security officer ran after the patient, and a fight ensued. The patient wrestled the gun from the officer and shot him in the chest. The officer later died.

"At that point in time, we began questioning why we had armed security," York says. The unfortunate incident prompted York and hospital administration to review the facility's policies and procedures, which ultimately resulted in the disarming of security officers.

HSEM talked to experts about armed security officers. Find out what you need to consider when deciding whether to arm your facility's guards.

Unregulated training equals risks

Lack of federal regulations and, in some cases, state regulations can make armed security an easy choice, but a risky one, too-especially if a hospital isn't committed to extensive hiring procedures and training.

Regulations vary among states and are mostly inadequate, says Anthony Potter, CHE, CHPA-F, CPP, FAAFS, director of public safety at Forsyth Memorial Hospital in Winston-Salem, NC. "We're way, way behind in terms of what's required," Potter says, noting that armed security officer training requirements can range from four to 24 hours of initial training in addition to annual education.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration don't have regulations for armed security officers.

Some security directors cite this lack of regulations as one reason hospitals should reconsider armed security in their facilities

While working at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta several years ago, Potter inherited an armed security team with no training.

"[At the time], Georgia required 16 hours of training for armed security, and police were required to have over 300 hours. [In comparison], you needed 1,100 hours of training in order to cut hair," Potter says. "I told the chief executive officer that we could train the officers or take the guns away." He agreed to train the officers.

"Now we're seeing hospital administrators consciously looking at this issue and asking whether it's something they really want to do," says York, who is now the vice president of Hospital Shared Services, which provides healthcare security services to over 140 hospitals.

Four years ago, 65% of York's clients requested setting up an armed security program compared to only 15% today.

Conduct a proper risk assessment

Whether you're considering arming security or already have armed officers in your facility, stay open-minded, advises Potter.

"There's a vast majority of hospitals that probably don't need armed officers, but those that do need them desperately," Potter says. "For every incident that shouldn't have [involved] guns, you can find an incident that proves you should. Don't base policies on reactions to a particular incident. Do it from an analytical point of view."

Start by asking the following questions:

  • Have there been incidents that require security officers to use weapons?

  • Do you believe there will be incidents in which the use of a gun is necessary?

  • Are you prepared to handle the consequences if a gun is fired?

  • Can you afford to pay for the ongoing costs of training and retaining officers?

  • To answer the questions above, conduct an honest risk assessment that includes the following four steps:

    1. Consult with the crimes against persons and property (CAP) index. For the cost of about $160, this statistical report can give hospitals insight into criminal activity, social economics, and probability of crime in their area. The comprehensive report looks at past, present, and projected crime risks, based on national, state, and local crime rates.

    2. Obtain regular reports from your local police department. Establish a relationship with local law enforcement so you can receive monthly reports on crime in your area. This information can be of tremendous value, enabling you to know the amount of reported gunshots fired in your neighborhood each month, York says.

    In addition, learn how long it takes for police to respond to your facility, as well as how much time, if any, police spend in the area or even at your hospital.

    3. Talk to other hospitals in your area. If another hospital has armed security, take the opportunity to find out more about why it chose this route.

    "We try to look at other healthcare facilities that are armed and unarmed and the risk factors involved," York says.

    "We also look at the CAP index, compare security incident data and police statistics." In addition, if a local facility decides to arm or disarm, he looks at the reasons why they implemented a particular security model.

    4. Evaluate your hospital's commitment to armed security. Armed security costs more than regular training. Not only does the facility have to purchase firearms and related equipment, training costs can vary depending on the type of facility.

    "Is the hospital willing to make a commitment, in terms of the type of officers to hire, and train them so they can safely handle a firearm in an extremely volatile environment?" Potter asks.

    Review the decision every three years, recommends York.

    "In many instances, the issue of armed v. unarmed security is triggered by a new hospital administrator asking simply why you have armed security," York says.

    "Get in a cycle so you're looking at the issue frequently, but not reporting so often that the shared information becomes redundant and unrevealing," he recommends


    Five tips for arming security

    If your facility elects to arm its security officers, review the following five tips to ensure the safest and best security team:

    1. Do your homework before hiring. "I think there's a danger in having someone on a security [team] who is a cop-wannabe or cowboy," says Earl Williams, HSP, safety coordinator at BroMenn Healthcare in Bloomington, IL. "They have a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later."

    To avoid hiring a potential hazard, conduct extensive background checks that include psychological screenings, recommends Anthony Potter, CHE, CHPA-F, CPP, FAAFS, director of public safety at Forsyth Memorial Hospital in Winston-Salem, NC. You want someone on the job who's psychologically stable, he says.

    2. Train armed security officers like you'd train police officers. Whether a security officer or a police officer shoots a gun, the consequences are the same, Potter reminds. Consider sending security officers to the police academy for firearm and other use-of-force training. Go above and beyond state requirements for armed security, especially if the requirements for training are minor.

    Some security directors argue that hospital security needs more training than police because the hospital environment is different. While working with armed security officers in Atlanta, Potter relied on state-certified instructors, employed the same firearms training as the local police department, and sought additional of training, which focused on the healthcare environment for his officers.

    3. Keep up with training. Training can't be once a year-it has to be monthly to keep officers up to speed, Williams says.

    Create a program that requires at least quarterly trips to the shooting range, as well as semiannual certification, and inservice training. "If the commitment to training by the institution isn't there, you're better off not arming [security personnel] at all," Potter says.

    4. Make security officers' pay commensurate with their job responsibilities. You may require officers to go through the police academy, but remember there's a big difference between the pay and benefits of a police officer and those of a security officer, Williams reminds. Make the job financially worthwhile. Part of maintaining a well-trained and solid armed security team is retaining officers.

    5. Have all policies and procedures review-ed by a legal department staffed with people who specialize in hospital security and liability.