Hospitals in Hampton Roads seek to balance security, safety as violence rises in emergency rooms

Stephen Hollowell has seen the different sides of safety — from working in the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. These days, he’s returned to a familiar trade, as as security director for Sentara Healthcare.

But some things have changed since he worked in health care security in New York. The general increase in violence nationally is spilling over to hospitals and has been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to Hollowell.

In response, area hospitals are revamping security measures to protect their patients and staff.

“Clinical staff especially bear the brunt of it and that’s why you’re seeing reports all this year of violence against clinical staff” he said. “Hospitals throughout the country, not just this country, but other countries as well, have had to now start ramping up their security even more so than there was before.”

Even before the pandemic, almost seven out of 10 doctors in emergency departments said violence was increasing, according to an August 2018 poll of 3,500 emergency department workers across the nation. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of assaults on health care staff jumped 13%, to 11,370, with the caveat that many such assaults go unreported, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

By 2019, the workplace violence injury rate at private private hospitals and home health services had more than doubled since 2009, according to an May 2021 AFL-CIO report on worker safety. Between April and June this year, roughly 57 nurses a day were assaulted across 483 medical facilities, according to an analysis by Press Ganney, a health care database company.

Hollowell said the security concerns at a hospital are different from those of a corporate office or a port because of the nature of the visitors. People are coming to to visit sick loved ones or undergo various procedures or life-saving care. That can create a tense environment where those worried for a family member or themselves can lash out at those around them, he said.

Early Sept. 4, Sentara Norfolk General went on lockdown as victims of the Killam Avenue and Monarch Way shootings were transported to the hospital along with other trauma victims from across the city, according to Patti Montes, director of system emergency management.

The point of the lockdown is to keep everyone safe as multiple patients from one or multiple incidents flow into the facility over a short period, she said. During that time, the hospital wants to make sure that those in the emergency department have a legitimate reason to be there, according to Montes.

“We have to do this for everyone’s safety,” Montes said.

Additionally, while in a mass casualty alert, more staff and resources are allocated to make sure proper treatment is given even as a large number of patients arrive at the emergency department, according to Montes.

Hollowell said hospitals are on guard around the clock for potential bad actors who want to commit crime or violence — and try to take advantage of a busy situation.

“We want an open, welcoming environment, but at the same time, we have to provide security and safety, so it’s a real balancing act,” Hollowell said. “You don’t want to turn a hospital into Fort Knox, but at the same time you want to make sure you’re providing a level of safety for the community.”

After a nurse at Riverside Medical Center in Newport News was stabbed repeatedly last year,, the hospital rolled out more training for its growing security staff, improved surveillance inside and outside the facilities and expanded the information it collects for visitors to better know who is coming in. It has also partnered more with law enforcement for support if needed, according to a statement from Kim Brighton, protection and emergency management director.

Bon Secours has been taking similar steps, such as evaluating and reviewing its security measures, strengthening partnerships with law enforcement and undergoing violence prevention training, according to Emma Swann, a spokesperson for the health system.

Sentara has special units across its hospitals that analyze incidents to determine root causes and provide recommendations on how to avoid similar situations, while also going to victims of the violence to support them and find out if they want to press charges, Hollowell said.

Though almost seven out of 10 of the over 3,500 polled medical workers in the national August 2018 survey said their facility reported the assault, fewer than 3% of those assaulted pressed charges, according to the survey results.

One of the challenges at Sentara is hiring more security personnel who are up to the task, according Hollowell.

“The skill set that is required for a security person in health care is at a much higher level than corporate (security) — and I worked in corporate, so I think I know what I’m talking about,” Hollowell said.

He said Sentara is looking for qualified candidates who can keep places safe by listening to potentially violent visitors or patients, offering understanding and ultimately defusing situations so that minimum or no force becomes necessary.

“De-escalation is one of the best ways to prevent workplace violence,” Hollowell said.

However, that same type of employee is also in demand from other groups, such as police departments, which are also struggling with hiring the right candidates, he said.

A self-described big believer in continuous education, Hollowell said there is always room to learn how to mitigate assaults and violence in the health care setting.

“You’re never going to stop it 100%. There’s no such thing as 100% in security,” Hollowell said. “But if we can really reduce it, this place will be safer, not just for staff, but for patients as well.”

Ian Munro,