HOULTON, Maine — Treating patients is not the only thing on the minds of doctors and nurses when hospital staff have to deal with unruly, and sometimes violent, people.
To that end, Houlton Regional Hospital in southern Aroostook County is taking steps to ensure its staff, and the general public, remain safe from any violent outbursts.
Starting Monday, the hospital will roll out a new, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week security force aimed at providing an extra layer of safety for staff and the public.
Aroostook County hospitals are fortunate in that the nature of incidents requiring security intervention are much smaller in scope than in other parts of the country or even the state. Active-shooter situations or infant abductions are not common, but that is not to say that a police-like presence is not needed.
Assaults on medical personnel happen more often than people might think and are some of the most common types of incidents to take place in a hospital setting, according to Shawn Anderson, Houlton Regional Hospital’s chief executive officer.
“We have been watching the number of security-related incidents on the rise, with a lot of those incidents in the Emergency Department but not exclusively,” Anderson said. “As a result of that increase in incidents, we saw a vulnerability for our staff, patients and visitors.”
“Sometimes it is just that folks are tired of waiting,” explained Traci Peabody, chief nursing officer. “Sometimes it is aggressive patients, whether it is a mental health issue or it is drug-related.”
Two security people will be present in the emergency room area, with the hopes of diffusing situations before they escalate.
“The goal is that they will see that [police] presence, and hopefully it will deter things,” she said. “We are doing this as much for the community as we are for our staff. They are extra hands for us to use in any situation since we are also short-staffed.”
Anderson said the switch to its own security staff has been in the works for about a year and will provide the hospital with 24-hour coverage, 365 days a year. Previously, the hospital hired a private contractor to handle its security needs, with coverage extending for 12-hour shifts on weekdays and 24 hours on the weekends.
Creating its own security force will be more cost-effective for the Houlton hospital, Anderson said, but that is not the sole reason for the decision.
“We wanted something that was more controllable, so we can customize it to meet our needs and the needs of the community,” he said. “It was important for us to take that in-house and make it our own.”
The majority of those hired are from the local community, most of whom have some type of background in law enforcement.
Anderson said local law enforcement resources are already stretched thin and sometimes are not available to respond to incidents at the hospital. By having its own security force, it will regulate the number of calls it will have to make to the Houlton Police Department or Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office to simply provide backup support, depending on the severity of the incident.
In addition to creating a security command center inside the Emergency Department, Anderson said the plan is to install up to 60 cameras for personnel to monitor.
Houlton’s approach to hiring its own security force is not a new concept. In fact, the Houlton health care facility will share a security director — Mitch Wheeler — with Cary Medical Center in Caribou. The two hospitals are part of the Maine Rural Health Collaborative.
“In sharing a director between the two, we not only save money, but we can share expertise,” Anderson said.
Wheeler is no stranger to law enforcement as he is a former Aroostook County sheriff and his father, Edgar Wheeler, was a longtime sheriff. To start, the Houlton security staff will have eight employees, as well as two per-diem members. Additional per-diem workers are being sought.
Years ago, the Houlton hospital had no security detail and relied solely on any available staff member — from doctors down to custodians — to help out whenever a patient or visitor became unmanageable.
“Ultimately, our mission is to take care of people,” Anderson said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to employ security to ensure the delivery of health care can take place uninterrupted. But this is just one more area of support we can provide people.”