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Assessing weapons in your healthcare facility

Healthcare Security and Emergency Management, April 1, 2004

Seven tips for a foolproof weapons policy

"Leave your weapon at home" is the general rule of thumb in most hospitals. However, for po lice officers, detectives, security officers, and even members of the public, guns and other weapons are part of everyday life. This often poses challenges to hospital security.

It's important to have a detailed weapons policy, even though law-enforcement officials like those in the FBI, secret service, and state or local police should know your hospital's boundaries when it comes to weapons in the hospital.

"You create problems for yourself if you don't have a policy that addresses these individuals," says Nick Radu, CHPA, director for the Henry Ford Health System security/police department in Detroit. "The point is [you want] to have a weapon-free [hospital so] you can't make exceptions for special groups," says Radu.

Who, what, and where of weapons

"Weapons should only belong in healthcare when they're carried appropriately by the appropriate people," says Gus Niewenhous, Esq., CPP, CFE, director of safety and security at Tufts New England Medical Center in Boston.

"Weapons are generally incompatible in the healthcare setting," he says.

Assuming hospital visitors, patients, and staff can't bring weapons to the facility-a standard in most hospitals-your policy should thoroughly clarify who can carry a weapon and where.

Many hospitals only allow official law-enforcement employees, not private detectives and security officers, to carry weapons.

"My biggest worry is usually the people who want to be police officers," such as security officers and police officers in training, Niewenhous says. "They may carry a gun and are not always well-trained."

Your foolproof weapon policy

Consider the following seven tips when working on your weapons policies:

TIP #1: Define exactly what a weapon is in your policy. Law-enforcement officers may carry several types of weapons, from guns to batons to pepper spray.

Determine which weapons, if any, are allowed in certain parts of the hospital.

Whenever a law-enforcement official comes to Henry Ford Hospital as a visitor or patient, they must remove and secure any weapon.

TIP #2: Know your state's weapon laws. Many states have laws that outline which weapons can be brought into certain facilities, while other states may not define hospitals or healthcare facilities as weapon-free areas. For example, in Michigan, state law makes it illegal to carry a firearm into a hospital, Radu says.

The public doesn't necessarily understand not to bring a weapon into a hospital, Niewenhous says, pointing out that law enforcement should have that basic understanding.

TIP #3: Have separate policies for on- and off-duty law-enforcement officials. Make the difference clear between a police officer conducting an in vestigation and a police officer coming in for a surgical appointment, Niewenhous says.

Most off-duty police officers should know not to bring their weapons to the hospital. But an off-duty police officer carrying a weapon into the hospital for a scheduled appointment can cause some problems, Niewenhous says.

If off-duty officers come to Tufts New England Medical Center with their weapons, they must leave and schedule another appointment, Niewenhous says.

"Our policy is that if you're coming in to investigate a crime, we have no issue, and you can continue into the [hospital] with the weapon," Radu says. "If a police officer visits a loved one, then [he or she is] merely a visitor. We'll check in the gun and give it back when [the officer] leaves."

TIP #4: Acknowledge which hospital areas don't allow guns or weapons. "If you're escorting someone into a psych unit, [he or she] cannot carry a weapon. You must lock the gun in a box," says Linda Glasson, CHPA, security director for Obici Hospital in Suffolk, VA. "There is increased risk with weapons in the psychiatric unit."

The magnetic resonance imaging area is also off-limits, Niewenhous says.

TIP #5: Consider whether to hold weapons such as guns in lock boxes or storage areas. If your hospital chooses to store them, assess the liability of what that means should the gun get lost, stolen, or into the wrong hands.

At Henry Ford Hospital, armed security officers monitor and store weapons in a gunlock cabinet 24 hours a day. "Our staff is trained on how to handle weapons," Radu says.

When an off-duty law enforcement official shows up at the hospital armed for reasons outside of the job, Henry Ford Hospital security will secure and monitor the weapon using a two-key system, Radu says.

The weapon's owner and security both receive a key to the weapon's locked cabinet for added protection.

TIP #6: If you forego weapon storage, develop a protocol of what to do with a weapon.

For example, if an on-duty police officer comes in injured, the hospital must decide what to do with the weapon until another police officer arrives to retrieve the weapon.

"If they're injured, we like to get them into a treatment area as soon as possible because we don't know who's going to come in the door, and the officer could be vulnerable," Glasson says.

"If there's an injured officer, then usually another officer is on his way, and we have security stay in the area. If the officer is unconscious, we may be called to secure the weapon," she says.

State in your policy that on- or off-duty injur ed officers must have their weapons secured. Also, give your hospital the right to verify the identity of the person who has arrived to secure a weapon.

If it's an emotional family member or even an upset fellow officer, the hospital should assess whether this person can retain the weapon. Remember that you are a private facility and can make the rules for your hospital, Radu says.

TIP #7: Make sure to have a process in place and educate law-enforcement officials about the policy/protocol. Law-enforcement officials should know to always introduce themselves and ex plain to security what they are doing in the hospital, Radu says.

"If they're on duty, they have to come in and announce themselves because we have to protect the privacy and care of a patient," Radu says. "Of ficers should announce the intent of their visits and who they want to see. It's up to us to facilitate the situation."