Under the microscope: Studying Lowcountry hospital security

By Stefanie

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - A man will spend more than three years in prison after he escaped from the Berkeley County Jail last year and hid in a Myrtle Beach hospital.

James Sanders pleaded guilty in court Monday to domestic violence, failure to stop for police and escape. Authorities said Sanders pretended to be the brother of a comatose patient for two weeks after his escape.

His plot came to an end when that patient woke up and notified authorities.

That's only one incident bringing hospital security into questions.

Earlier this year, a gunman walked into an Alabama hospital and injured three people.

How secure are the Lowcountry's hospitals?

Hospitals are a microcosm of society - a public space with thousands of people coming in and out all day.

"All hospitals have open doors. It is difficult to secure what is essentially an open place," said Trident Health's director of security, Michael Shirey.

Shirey says the North Charleston hospital recently spent $300,000 on security upgrades.

"You don't have to look past the evening news to see the terrible things that could happen, so we put our systems in place and our procedures in place to prevent these things from coming here and to protect the people we have inside our walls," he said.

And though Shirey said no major security incident has happened, they have to be prepared for one.

"This is all preventative," he said. "We have not had big problems; we just don't want them to come here."

Some of the upgrades include a new nighttime visitor check-in system.

"At night, ever single person who walks in to visit this hospital has to have their picture taken and check their name against people who have committed offenses just to make sure we know who is in our hospital all the time," said Shirey.

The most secure place of all is the maternity ward.

"To gain entry into the labor and delivery floor, you have to gain entry by pressing this button," he said, adding that only people on a list provided by the mother can grant you access to the secure area. "Security in a hospital is of pretty significant importance because we have a population of people here who can't necessarily provide for their own safety and security."

Security is also a top priority at Roper Hospital in downtown Charleston, where former law enforcement officer Brad Payne keeps patients safe and secure.

"It's just like a city inside a building during the daytime, but we do have people in and out all night, families all night, so we do have issues from time to time but nothing too serious," Payne said.

Even with the around-the-clock access controls, video surveillance and advances identity check-in systems, Payne says when violence hits the community, the hospital is on alert.

"There is always heightened awareness when you have events occur like Sandy Hook or Ashley Hall, but we do have operations and procedures and plans in place to handle those types of incidents," he said.

At the end of the day, it comes down to hospitals choosing to be proactive instead of reactive to protect those who can't always defend themselves.

Both Trident and Roper hospital security directors say they have looked into getting metal detectors for their hospitals, which they say could become a new reality for hospital security in the future.

Medical University Hospital issued the following statement on hospital security:

We have a high level of security with more than 25,000 people coming on and off campus daily to make sure the campus is safe to the best of our ability. We take our security measures very seriously and have developed an interagency, prevention-based system to deal with any emergency or threat. Highlights of the system include:

  • MUSC has a substantial public safety and security workforce, operating 24/7.
  • University Police provide protection of external areas and perimeters.
  • There is a visible security presence and roving security officers in the key areas of Medical Center facilities, such as the emergency department.
  • Security visitor and employee badge system are in place to identify occupants and additional identification via extensive electronic surveillance systems (more than 300 cameras) for those without a badge.
  • The hospital has an extensive emergency notification system, including close working relationships with local law enforcement agencies.
  • Emergency Department includes police presence; as needed, metal detectors are activated.
  • The external areas surrounding the Emergency Department may be brightly illuminated on demand.
  • MUSC Medical Center staff is educated to call in for security assistance and to how to respond to security needs. Timely response of suspicious or inappropriate activity is provided throughout MUSC. All hospital staff are trained to identify suspicious behaviors.
  • Ongoing risk assessments are conducted to identify potential problems to reduce and prevent crimes and incidents.
  • MUSC Medical Center has an active Workplace Violence Prevention Program, in order to eliminate or reduce the threat of adverse events.
  • The MUSC police department and Medical Center security operations are fully accredited by appropriate accrediting bodies.

East Cooper Medical Center issued the following statement:

Dick Hayes, Director of Plant Operations and Security Officer for East Cooper Medical Center issued the following list of security measures currently in place at the hospital.

  • Policies and procedures are in place to address threats
  • Security guards are on duty 24/7
  • Cameras are monitored 24/7, interior and exterior
  • Sensitive areas of the hospital have controlled access
  • Up to date security measures are in place on Women's Services
  • All employees are required to wear badges
  • Badges are issued to all visitors and vendors