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Northwell Health deploys armed guards to beef up security

Pilot test kicks off plan to establish armed guards at all Northwell hospitals within the next year.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

New York's Northwell Health is rolling out enhanced security, with armed guards taking up posts in the system's two largest hospitals as part of a new pilot program to prepare for a potential active shooter situation. 

The guards have been in place at North Shore University Hospital since March and at Long Island Jewish Medical Center as of this month. The plan is to establish armed guards at all Northwell hospitals within the next year, said Terry Lynam, senior vice president and chief public relations officer for Northwell Health. 

There will be both uniformed and plain clothes officers and not everyone will be armed, Lyman said, and only those with a law enforcement background will have guns.

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The program is the result of demand from employees, who called for beefed up security following alarming incidents in hospitals nationwide and locally. Last year, a former doctor who had been fired killed one person and wounded half a dozen others at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in the Bronx. Lynam said Northwell's CEO Michael Dowling had resisted having armed guards for many years, wanting to maintain an "open, healing nurturing environment." But Lynam said they felt a responsibility to staff, patients and families to increase security with armed officers and other measures.

Northwell had been holding active shooter drills at all hospitals, and Lynam said the question of why they did not have armed security officers came up repeatedly. That resonated with corporate security staff and encouraged system leaders to implement the guards.

Dowling gave the green light for armed guards a week before the Bronx-Lebanon shooting, an incident that Lynam said reaffirmed their decision.

The uptick seen in workforce violence issues include more staff attacks. Incidents range from frustrated family members taking out their frustration on doctors and nurses, to an incident at Staten Island University Hospital in which a former employee came in and attacked their former supervisor with a baseball bat.

Lynam said the opioid crisis is a factor too, as those suffering from opioid or other substance use issues tend to exhibit erratic or troublesome behavior.

"You never know what is going to set people off sometimes," Lyman said. "People are more apt to express their frustration physically than they did years ago. The nature of threats has intensified as well. Those are the things raising concerns."

Northwell's Southside Hospital in Bayshore will be the next to have armed guards stationed.

The hospital had an incident in 2016 in which shots were fired in the parking lot outside the emergency department. No one was injured in that instance.

Huntington Hospital, also part of the Northwell Health system, is adding new security measures including new turnstiles and enhanced security procedures. The turnstiles will also become standard in all Northwell facilities.

Currently, guests must present identification and wear a hospital-issued guest pass to enter the building. Staffers are required to use their badge. As of this month, all guests and employees must scan their badge to gain access through turnstiles. Guests can get a temporary badge from the hospitals main entrance information desk. Emergency department and maternity unit entrances also require the same badge-scanning process as at the hospital's main entrance, Northwell Health said.

The rollout of the armed guards was not highly publicized.

"We did it very quietly. It was a soft launch. But there has been communication at individual facilities where this was implemented," Lyman said. "Staff feedback has been positive. We did this in response to employee concerns so the reaction has been very positive."

Northwell Health does work with the New York Police Department for certain facilities. Lynam said there is an NYPD officer stationed at Northwell Health's 24-hour emergency center in Greenwich Village, which is in lower Manhattan. 

The system also installed concrete barricades in front of certain facilities that might be considered more vulnerable. For instance, LIJMC is a 10-story glass building. Last year, Lynam said there was a legitimate threat made last year, that was of an anti-semitic nature, that was flagged by federal authorities. The threat was not made specifically against LIJMC but federal authorities picked up chatter that gave the impression that hospitals could be soft targets for a terrorist attack. The barricades went up shortly afterward.

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