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The weapons dilemma: Should you arm security?


March 1, 2009

The weapons dilemma: Should you arm security?

The threat of weapons inside a hospital is a terrifying scenario for any safety officer. Yet every year, security directors around the country have to make the decision of whether to bring that threat into their facilities by arming security officers.

Over the years, security technology has progressed, and hospital administration and safety directors are now forced to make an annual decision about how they will continue to make their facility safe for staff members and patients. Without standards or guidelines, they must decide for themselves whether the security staff should be armed. Sometimes that decision involves arming officers with any number of weapons, including pepper spray, batons, firearms, or even Tasers.

In October 2007, GE Security and the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety collaborated to produce the healthcare benchmarking study Securing Our Hospitals. Of the 579 subjects that answered the survey question, only 12% said they arm security officers. Of that 12%, firearms and handcuffs were the most popular armament, followed by pepper spray and batons. In addition, 23% of respondents said all of their officers were pepper/chemical defense spray–certified, although 82% said none of their officers were Taser-certified.

More than anything, these statistics show that a variety of options and lack of standardization compel security departments to deal with this issue on an individual basis by using careful analysis of their criminal environment.

What’s your threat level?

Ultimately, what will steer your decision regarding the implementation of weapons is hard evidence that you need them, says Karim Vellani, CPP, CSC, a certified security consultant at Threat Analysis Group in Houston.

Vellani says a threat assessment should include a history of crime statistics in your area, internal security reports, similar experiences of other hospitals, and conceptual threats such as gang violence. A comprehensive breakdown of the crime data will lead you to a qualified answer.

Tom Lynch, director of security at Springfield, MA–based Baystate Health Systems, performs this method of threat assessment annually and presents his findings to a leadership team.

“It’s a very challenging kind of an issue,” says Lynch. “I think everybody that I know sits back and, at least once a year, does an analysis of the risk and threat to the organization, and what’s foremost in your mind is trying to preserve the safest environment for your patients and staff and visitors. The complexities of arming staff, I think, are probably one of the big challenges.”

The argument against weapons

Lynch has been at Baystate Health for nearly 14 years and has never recommended or implemented armed security officers.

Instead, all of his staff members go through nonviolent crisis intervention training through the Crisis Prevention Institute, as well as training in use of force and defensive tactics.

“If you are being fair to the organizations you work for, then you’re spending the time to sit down and analyze what’s there, understand what the environment is, and make the best informed recommendations you can,” says Lynch.

Support from local police

Even though Baystate Health is the only trauma center in Springfield—meaning it handles all high-risk patients, such as gunshot victims—Lynch still hasn’t found sufficient evidence to warrant the use of weapons at the facility.

“We look at a lot of things in terms of benefits and detriments,” says Lynch. “My first reaction to it is I don’t see a lot of upsides, at least in our environment, because we enjoy tremendous support from the local police departments, and that makes a big difference.”

It helps that roughly half of Lynch’s officers undergo 16 weeks of training at the police academy. The security department is structured in such a way that senior titles require police training, which has allowed the two organizations to build a strong relationship over the years.

Lynch says the local police force is quick to offer support when a high security threat, such as a victim of gang violence, is admitted to the ER. In turn, the hospital does all it can to be supportive of police investigations and follow-ups.

Lynch also notes that if he ever felt the need to arm security guards, the evidence convincing him to do so would be overwhelming.

“One of the things that has always struck me is that if I ever had to make that recommendation [to use weapons] to my senior leadership team here, it would probably not be a surprise, because the nature of the criminal threat in the city would have changed radically to the point that local police might not be able to support us,” Lynch says. “And if that were the case, then there are already significant problems with recruiting and retention of staff, because who is going to want to come work here?”


The most obvious argument against arming secu-rity officers is the liability the hospital faces if something goes wrong. Although some may view weapons as a deterrent, a situation that involves an innocent patient, visitor, or a staff member could result in lawsuits ranging from wrongful injury or death to OSHA violations, says Earl Williams, HSP-M, safety specialist and manager at BroMenn Healthcare in Normal, IL.

“Even if your intent was to use it on the perpetrator and you missed and caught an innocent bystander, then that’s going to leave you in a big jam,” Williams says. “They are going to go back and look through all your training files and records, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t keep really good records of their training. So they are going to end up in court.”

Recently, Tasers have made their way into the hos-pital setting as a viable nonlethal option for hospital security.

But even nonlethal weapons require a tremendous amount of judgment and training.

“The pro of a Taser is, generally speaking, you can shoot somebody with it and render them next to or temporarily helpless,” Williams says. “The other side of that is if you’ve got somebody with a heart condition, you can kill them with it. So how do you make a judgment and you’ve only got seconds?”

No standards and more flexibility

The primary focus of this discussion is that there is no concrete solution in the decision to arm security officers. With all of the regulations that govern the healthcare industry, hospital security remains free of guidelines and direction.

Although some might argue the lack of regulation leaves hospitals groping for answers, there is also a more positive perspective. Because each hospital is different in terms of crime, threats, and culture, security directors have the freedom to make decisions according to their hospital’s risk assessment and threat level.

Lynch remembers working in New York when the state standardized officer training. It was probably wellintentioned, he says, but it applied a broad approach to specific circumstances.

Since there are a variety of weapons available, the lack of regulation keeps the decision from being too cut and dry.

“There are all kinds of tools out there,” Williams says. “If you look in the surgical suite, there are all kinds of scalpels that the doctor uses. He doesn’t just grab the first sharp instrument and start whacking away with it—let’s hope. So it’s the same thing with the security officers. There are all kinds of weapons out there, but based on the risk assessment, you’d have a better idea about what those weapons ought to be.”

Assessing the need for weapons

Take a minute to evaluate the following five points before arming your officers:

  • Can the police help? A strong relationship with local police could eliminate the need to arm hospital security officers.
  • Can the situation be handled nonviolently? “Most of the people you have problems with in the hospital are people who are mentally impaired or situationally impaired in that their brother or their wife or their mother or their dad is dying, and so they’re mentally not really connected,” says Earl Williams, HSP-M, safety specialist and manager at BroMenn Healthcare in Normal, IL. “Most of those can be handled in a nonviolent situation.” Perhaps a strong nonviolent intervention program is the best solution.
  • Do you have the money for training? Purchas-ing weapons, training staff members, certification, and licensing all cost money, and there’s no way to cut corners. If your hospital administration can’t fork over sufficient funds, reevaluate what you really need.
  • Do the threats justify the decision? Look at conceptual threats. Is there a strong gang presence? Is there a foreseeable threat of patients bringing in weapons? These questions should factor into your decision.
  • What’s your hospital’s culture? Many hospitals want to project a certain image of safety. Arming security officers may or may not fall in line with the culture in your hospital.

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