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Balance Liability Against Threats When Debating Weapons for Security

Scott Wallask, for HealthLeaders Media, May 21, 2009

If a patient sees armed security officers in your hospital, it's hard to predict how the person will react.

On one hand, seeing officers with guns, Tasers, or batons may provide patients with a sense of relief that security can handle violent incidents and deter dangerous behavior. On the flip side, armed security officers may contribute to an institutional feel at the hospital, which may not keep with the welcoming atmosphere facilities want to project to the community.

There is no concrete solution in the decision to arm security officers. With all of the regulations that govern the healthcare industry, decision-makers for hospital security remain free of guidelines for weapon use.

Liability concerns will ultimately influence the choice of arming or not arming security officers, says Earl Williams, HSP-M, safety specialist at BroMenn Healthcare in Normal, IL.

"CEOs would be interested in that [aspect]," Williams says. "If you arm guards and there's a death, do you have insurance to handle that? Do you want to deal with that?"

BroMenn doesn't arm its security officers, whose services are contracted out to a vendor. However, the officers do carry pepper spray, showing there is a gray line between what is and isn't considered a weapon.

Tasers and similar stun guns have grown in popularity at hospitals, as they have proven in some cases to be an effective step down from deadly force. Such was the experience at WakeMed Raleigh (NC) Campus, part of WakeMed Health and Hospitals, Inc., which began providing Tasers to its security officers about five years ago.

The hospital got an overwhelmingly positive response from officers who received the Tasers, says Lisa B. Pryse, BS, CHPA, CHSP, chief of campus police at WakeMed.


A trio of considerations

Ask your in-house or contracted security supervisors to evaluate the following three points regarding arming officers, as outlined by Williams:

  • Police cooperation. A strong relationship with local police could eliminate the need to arm hospital security officers if the police could respond to an incident quickly.

  • Security data about violence situations. Weapon use should in part be based on whether a hospital has historically dealt with violent people. "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," Williams says. "Most of those can be handled in a nonviolent situation." For example, some hospitals choose de-escalation training or roving canines over weapons based on the cases they deal with and liability concerns. Other medical facilities, however, feel justified on arming security officers based on given threats, such as patients and visitors trying to bring their own weapons into the building.

  • Funding for weapons programs. Purchasing weapons, training staff members, certifying carriers, and licensing them all cost money, and there's no way to cut corners without risking officer safety and the hospital's reputation. Administration needs to earmark sufficient funds for any weapons program.

Answers to all of the above points may be clearer after conducting a security risk assessment to weigh the potential threats, Williams says.

The Joint Commission requires accredited hospitals to identify security risks as part of its environment of care standards. The commission has no position on arming security officers, instead letting individual hospitals make that determination.

However, surveyors have been known to pull training records of security officers with weapons at their sides, particularly those guarding the emergency department.


Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for the Hospital Safety Center. He can be reached at swallask@hcpro.com.

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