Working With Law Enforcement to Better Protect Your Healthcare Workers and Patients

By Megan Headley

One might argue that the most effective managers are those who don’t manage alone. Effective managers listen to their employees and customers and incorporate their feedback into training and future management decisions. They work with dependable partners to improve processes and conditions.

So when local law enforcement officers pursued a homicide suspect to the vicinity of a San Francisco area urgent care and outpatient surgical center one December morning, administrative staff made it a point to listen to employee concerns about the experience after the fact and decided to work with local law enforcement to make improvements. The experience has launched a systemwide training initiative intended to better educate staff on how to help local law enforcement more effectively do their job of keeping healthcare workers and customers safe.

An instructive incident

It was an otherwise typical Saturday at this particular medical facility when the local sheriff’s department issued an all-points bulletin that a homicide suspect had been observed fleeing into the parking structure adjacent to the clinic. The medical center wasn’t privy to the alert, so it was a surprise to staff when the police and SWAT teams descended on the parking structure and began searching the five-story facility.

To secure the grounds, law enforcement set up barricades at the garage exit and searched all vehicles and people attempting to leave the site. When that didn’t lead to the suspect’s capture, authorities launched a thorough search and evacuation of the medical facility. The SWAT team was met by two members of the security and engineering staff, who quickly recovered from their surprise to provide floor plans and video footage to aid in the search.

While the police didn’t catch the suspect on the property (it was later learned he left the parking garage on foot, and he was captured days later), they did leave quite an impression on workers at the healthcare facility.

“A lot of the employees were upset,” says Jerry Glotzer, Bay Area regional director of environmental health and safety/emergency management for Palo Alto Medical Foundation, a part of Sutter Healthcare. “[We heard] ‘the police didn’t explain anything.’ What we learned through that close call was that we really have to get our employees to understand the mission of the police at the time of these events.”

A job to do

Having conducted on-site training scenarios with law enforcement in the past, Glotzer was able to provide some perspective to employees.

“When the police come in, they’re going right past you, they’re not helping you — their only job is to get the shooter. Data shows that in about 20 years of hospital shootings in New York City, the events don’t last but a few minutes. Also, once the shooter is engaged with a security officer who has a gun or a cop, they typically stop shooting innocent people and start shooting back at that shooter, or they kill themselves. So we try to make it clear to people that when the police come in, don’t take it personally, but they are going to walk right past you to get to the shooter, even if you’re injured,” he explains.

However, Glotzer also saw the importance of validating employees’ concerns. “We learned from staff that we have to do a better job,” Glotzer says.

The No. 1 concern was communicating the potential threat to all staff members. As a result, the facility now uses mass messaging on a regular basis. For example, staff members get alerts on their devices in the event of fire drills, which is making this notification system a normal mode of communication.

Learning from experience

The medical facility staff also was able to discuss concerns with local law enforcement through a debriefing with the lieutenant on the homicide case.

Among other things, facility staff learned how to keep from being surprised by police again. The facility is now part of a local law enforcement notification system. The alert system sends out warnings from police and fire departments in the event of potential danger nearby.

“In this case, we could have had warning that there was a suspect in the area. It would also give us warning in the future to lock down the facility,” Glotzer explains. “Having that advance information could be helpful.”

The facility staff also explained to the lieutenant that staff had been uneasy when they were asked to evacuate the building and searched. The result is that the facility is now coordinating additional training with local law enforcement.

“They’ll come discuss run-hide-fight protocol, and explain their role and why they have to ensure that individuals coming out of the building don’t include the perpetrator hiding among evacuees,” Glotzer says.

An upcoming drill will focus on the evacuation process.

“The objective is to have police outside the building as the evacuation occurs and people exit the building. This will give staff a chance to reduce some of their anxiety around seeing law enforcement descend on their facility. Then we might next look at doing more involved exercises,” Glotzer says.

While one might hope that there will be little need for the lessons learned from this type of on-site role-playing, statistics indicate that workplace violence is higher for healthcare than for any other industry.

Glotzer advises, “Reach out to your law enforcement partners and find some people you can partner with. It begins to set the expectations of your staff.”

This article originally appeared on FacilityCare.