Experts: No need for metal detectors at Hopkins

Hospital official says installing detectors impractical

  • Harry Koffenberger, standing right in dark suit, vice president of Corporate Security for Johns Hopkins Hospital, talked about security measures, such as identification badges, used at the hospital while addressing the news media.
Harry Koffenberger, standing right in dark suit, vice president… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
September 17, 2010|By Scott Calvert, Julie Scharper and Frank Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Paul Warren Pardus did not have to evade security Thursday when he took a handgun to the eighth floor of the Nelson Building at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

There was nothing to stop him from carrying a gun into the hospital, no metal detector to set off an alarm.

While Hopkins has long focused on safety at its sprawling medical campus in crime-plagued East Baltimore, the hospital does not require patients or visitors to pass through metal detectors, as Americans must do now at airports, courthouses and many federal buildings.

With a weekly stream of 80,000 patients and visitors, imposing such security restrictions is "impossible," Hopkins officials say — and security experts agree. Even as violent incidents appear to be on the upswing at hospitals, they need to remain welcoming places, experts say.

The Nelson Building's entrance is not equipped with metal detectors, said Harry Koffenberger, vice president for corporate security at Hopkins. Neither are the dozens of other doors, loading docks and emergency exits at the mammoth hospital facility.

"To put in magnetometers at 80 doors, and the requisite armed force needed to staff them, would be impossible," he said at a news conference. "Not in a health care setting."

Hopkins does, however, conduct searches and magnetometer "wanding" in "high-risk situations" in the emergency department, where gunshot and stabbing victims are often treated.

Otherwise, guards verify the medical appointments of all arriving patients and visitors. The guards — part of a security force that numbers more than 400 — place wristbands on every one.

Few hospitals in the United States have metal detectors.

"There are only one or two institutions that I am aware of — hospitals — that have them, and they're not on the East Coast," Koffenberger said.

Even in the wake of Thursday's shootings — which left a doctor wounded and two people dead — hospital security experts echoed his view that metal detectors are not feasible or necessarily desirable.

"We're not Fort Knox; we have to serve the public," said Joseph Bellino, president of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety, a professional organization based in Illinois.

Bellino said hospitals try to strike a balance between protecting patients, visitors and staff and fostering a welcoming atmosphere.

"A hospital is considered a safe haven," Bellino said. "People come to us to cure them, help them, make them better. Overall, when you see incidents like this they're very rare."

This year, there have been only a handful of such incidents nationwide, he said. In March, an 85-year-old heart patient in Connecticut allegedly stashed a revolver in the folds of his hospital gown and shot a nursing supervisor who tried to grab the gun. The 35-year-old nurse was shot three times but survived.

Since 2004, there have been "significant increases in reports of assault, rape and homicide," at health care institutions across the country, according to the Joint Commission, a private accrediting body for hospitals. It reported that the greatest number of reports have been in the past three years, with 36 incidents in 2007, 41 in 2008 and 33 in 2009.

Kathleen McPhaul, a University of Maryland workplace violence researcher, said it's an "open question" whether hospitals need to deploy detectors.

"It's just unclear to me whether we have to go to the level of metal detectors, but I'm not sure there's really any other way to make sure someone is not bringing a weapon in," said McPhaul, an assistant professor at the School of Nursing. "People carry guns in this society."

McPhaul said that while the occasional shooting grabs headlines, hospitals are beset every day with low-level violence and verbal abuse directed by patients at caregivers.

"Hospitals are frustrating places," she said. "People are sick, patients are in pain. Visitors are worried about loved ones. There are delays in care."

Hopkins pharmacy technician Sharon Addo said the incident did not make her feel uncomfortable working at the hospital.

"I'm not afraid to come to work," Addo said. "It's just an unfortunate situation that happened at the best hospital in the country." She said the only potential security shortcoming could be the fact that all visitors aren't searched.

Thursday's incident is being assessed to determine what might be learned from it, Koffenberger said. He said Hopkins officials have talked about installing metal detectors in the past and could discuss it again.

Hopkins has more than 400 unarmed security officers on duty at the East Baltimore campus, "one of the largest, if not the largest health care security force in the country," he said. More than 150 armed, off-duty police officers are available to respond to hospital emergencies.

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