Psychiatric Facilities, Weapons, and Security

By Jeffrey A. Hawkins

On March 8, 2012 at 2 p.m. a man walked into the Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic, part of the University of Pittsburgh, pulled out a handgun and began shooting, apparently at random.

Before police could arrive, the gunman killed one person and wounded 7 others, including responding police who shot and killed the offender.

Healthcare facilities, especially those dealing with mental or addiction problems are very dangerous environments and the balance between security and patient care is always a delicate balance. Facilities don’t want to create an atmosphere making patients more agitated, yet the threats are real.

According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics  (BLS), healthcare workers experience 25 violent incidents per 10,000 full-time workers per year; the rate for all occupations is 2 per 10,000 workers. The BLS report goes on to state the the number of incidents by healthcare facilities is most likely under reported.

What makes this incident more disturbing is that the institution’s management making the security decisions did not seem to understand the basics of security.

Prior to the shooting, checking visitors to the patient units was the responsibility of the nurses who used hand-held metal detectors to check visitors, after having them empty their pockets, purses, or handbags.

Now the institution is considering metal detectors for the 16-floor building.

Here are the security problems we tend to see over and over again.

First, it is always after a tragic incident that institutions consider security alternatives. All organizations need to look at risks and security measures, but especially those that are already at high-risk…before an incident occurs.

Second, having non-trained personnel, such as nurses, conducting security checks is putting these people at such a high risk. Even if they were properly trained, hand-held metal detectors are not easy to use or read. What did they do if the hand-held unit detected something? Was there an area for secondary screening? Did they have people remove clothing? Did they “pat” them down? These are things trained security personnel do, not nurses.

Third, and this applies to all organizations and facilities that use metal detectors, if you have unarmed personnel, security or otherwise, staffing the detectors, how would this stop an Active Shooter? If the offender has the intent to enter and kill people, the personnel at the metal detectors will be the first to be shot. And if they are not armed, they are only the first targets and have no recourse. This incident at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic proved this point, the first person shot was a 63-year-old receptionist.

Hopefully other healthcare facilities will learn from this tragic incident and take measures before they have an incident.

Management has to get over the “It can’t happen here” mentality.

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