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Columbus shooting puts focus on hospital security

Medical Center force balances safety with public's need for access

POSTED: April 9, 2008 5:01 a.m.
ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN The Times/

Security officer Robert Hare tells smokers to move off the campus Friday afternoon while patrolling parking lots outside of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

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In the wake of a fatal shooting Thursday at a Columbus hospital, many Georgia hospitals are reassessing their own security procedures.

"It just a very sad event that happened, and it's one of those things that always makes you reflect back," said Dane Henry, vice president of support services at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

"As good as we may be or think we are, what can we do to make it a safer place? That's something that you always have to think about, regardless of events like this."

Police in Columbus say Charles Johnston, 63, was reportedly angry about the way his late mother had been treated at Doctors Hospital. Carrying two pistols and a revolver, Johnston killed a nurse and an administrative assistant on the fifth floor of the hospital, then fatally shot a third person in the parking lot.

Because of the nature of hospitals, Henry said it isn't possible to fully restrict public access.

"Hundreds and hundreds of people filter through here. We have to be an open, welcoming sort of organization," he said. "It's a place for healing. It's a place where people come during their worst possible moments for help."

Forcing visitors and patients to submit to searches or walk through metal detectors is neither feasible nor desirable, Henry said.

Instead, every person who works at the hospital must take an annual class on how to recognize the signs of potential criminal activity.

"Everyone who wears a Northeast Georgia Health System badge, whether they're a physician, a nurse or a volunteer, is trained in what we call situational awareness," Henry said.

In addition, uniformed security guards are stationed throughout both the Lanier Park and main hospital campuses. Henry said all the guards are employees of the hospital, not contractors.

Andrew Corsaro, director of security and emergency preparedness for the medical center, said he did not want to disclose exactly how many guards there are.

"They are posted in very visible places, where there's a large volume of patients and visitors and staff coming through," he said. "We also have marked security vehicles patrolling the parking lots."

Other security measures include closed-circuit cameras and a badge-swiping system that limits the number of employees who have access to certain sensitive areas.

Corsaro said more than half of the guards have completed a certified firearms training course with the Georgia peace officer program, which allows them to carry guns. "They go through rigorous annual training and are given the tools to handle various levels of threat," he said.

Officers with local law enforcement agencies are also a frequent sight on campus. "We have a very good relationship with the Gainesville Police Department and the Hall County Sheriff's Office," said Henry.

Law enforcement officers and security personnel are the only people allowed to carry guns on campus. Henry said private citizens, even if they have a concealed weapon permit, cannot bring guns on hospital property.

He said as far as he knows, there has never been any type of shooting incident at the hospital, and he hopes there never will be.

"We're constantly seeking ways to improve. As part of our accreditation process, we have to conduct an annual risk assessment, which includes security," Henry said.

"No amount of planning can 100 percent prevent something like (the Columbus incident), but appropriate planning is where you get into being able to mitigate it."



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