Security to the ER—STAT!

Oct. 27, 2008
Hospitals' sensitive areas require special security care
Overall hospital security is a balancing act. But there are certain sensitive areas in hospitals that must be more carefully secured than others. The potential for violence in the ER, the presence of high-value drugs in the pharmacy, and the sensitivity of patient files in records rooms should bring these areas, among others, to the particular attention of the security staff.

A Safety Emergency

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, hospital workers are more than four times as likely to be assaulted on the job as staff in other private-sector industries. Violent attacks may happen in a psychiatric ward or in a waiting room, but in many hospitals most serious problems occur in the emergency room. The ER is often open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the sick and injured that come seeking treatment cannot be turned away.

News reports of gang violence in the ER are common. In urban areas, gang violence that begins on the streets can continue into the emergency room, where injured gang members are taken for medical treatment. Once an apparent gang member with a gunshot wound or other serious injury arrives at the ER, hospital security needs to move quickly.

In such a situation, many hospitals immediately lock down the ER. People needing emergency treatment are still admitted, but only after passing through a vestibule where they first can be viewed and questioned by security personnel. Bulletproof glass, like that used in many bank teller cages, is frequently installed to separate ER staff from the public.

As long as the threat remains, it is important to monitor cameras trained on other hospital entries, since gang members may look for another way to enter the ER. Some hospitals even close down their ambulance bays, demanding that vehicles have a police escort to enter. And with increasing frequency, police departments are stationing an officer in local hospitals, particularly at night.

Open Pharmacies Tempt Thieves

The hospital pharmacy, with its cache of powerful drugs, is another area deserving of additional security efforts. Cameras should be mounted not only within the pharmacy, but also at the receiving docks where the drugs enter the hospital. And in addition to monitors in the security control room, place monitors in the offices of pharmacy and receiving dock managers to allow extra sets of eyes to watch this critical operation. Video should be recorded by DVRs for investigative purposes and to provide evidence in case of theft.

Card readers should be placed at the pharmacy entrance to allow access only to authorized employees. And within the drug vaults, many hospitals are adding card readers to pharmaceutical cabinets as an extra precaution and also to provide a record of who has directly accessed the drugs. Biometrics may be employed as an added layer of identification.

Access in Other Areas

The use of biometrics is gaining favor among many physicians who don't want to worry about carrying an access card to enter an operating room. Iris recognition systems can quickly and accurately identify a doctor as he or she enters a surgical suite, and they allow doctors to avoid rescrubbing since there's no need to touch the reader.

Card and biometric readers are also being used in many other areas of a hospital. For instance, some larger medical centers conduct research programs involving highly infectious diseases and laboratory animals. Extra precautions in such areas may include the use of access cards or biometrics to enter a vestibule where a security guard can check identity one last time before allowing entrance.

Also, access readers provide a record of where the holder has been within the hospital for the past 24 hours. Anyone who has been in an area where virus or bacterial agents have been handled may be directed to a shower facility before being allowed into a research area.

Federal laws regarding the privacy of patient records, such as the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA), have led to the addition of access control and video to file rooms and accounting centers. Since not all of a hospital's assets are tangible, it is a good idea to integrate the facility's IT infrastructure into a security plan. Assessing the current network can help ensure that the network is secure, data transmissions are not vulnerable, and confidential information is protected at all times.

Video and Tracking

In addition to placements in emergency rooms, pharmacies, records rooms and at main entries, video surveillance cameras are likely to be used to monitor stairwells, particularly leading to labor and delivery areas and the nursery of a maternity ward.

Cameras are also likely to be found monitoring building perimeters, parking lots and garages. Call boxes, which provide immediate voice access to hospital security officials, are a wise choice for use in parking areas.

Hospitals have also been among the first adopters of asset tracking systems, attaching infrared and radio tags to expensive mobile items such as crash carts, IV pumps and portable X-ray machines. These tags make it less likely that the equipment can be taken from the facility, and they help staff to locate items within the hospital.

A highly skilled security systems integrator can help hospital administrators navigate these many issues to ensure the selection and proper installation of the very best electronic security equipment and systems for a large medical facility.

Mark Heimer is a national account manager for VTI Security Integrators in Minneapolis, MN. VTI is a leading systems integration company that focuses on providing complete security solutions to Fortune 1000 clients on a local, regional and national basis. VTI is a member of Security Net, a network of 17 North American and five international leading independent system integrators offering clients a single, responsible source for meeting all electronic security needs.