Erlanger at Hutcheson beefs up security, arms guards

Erlanger at Hutcheson beefs up security, arms guards

January 18th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

Private security guards carrying sidearms now patrol the main campus of Erlanger at Hutcheson hospital in Fort Oglethorpe.

The decision to provide armed round-the-clock security at the local hospital was made after an incident Jan. 6, when two individuals died as the result of a domestic dispute in the ICU waiting area.

James L. Benson, 59, of Chattanooga is charged with two counts of murder in the shooting deaths of Mary Sue Benson, 56, his estranged wife, and Charlotte Edith Johnson, 77, his mother-in-law. Officials report Benson left the hospital following an argument, went to the parking lot where he took a revolver from his car, walked back into the hospital and shot the two women.

Benson, who is being held without bail in the Walker County jail, then drove himself to the Fort Oglethorpe Police Department where he surrendered.

Hospital officials say this is the first time anything like this has occurred at Erlanger at Hutcheson, formerly known as Hutcheson and even earlier as Tri-County hospital.

"Hospital security is always a compromise," Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles said. "Hospitals want to keep an open door policy while maintaining a safe environment.

"We have to balance the need for public safety against an overly restrictive security system."

That sentiment echoed remarks made by Debbie Reeves, Erlanger at Hutcheson administrator.

"We are dedicated to our community and want to maintain quality security measures as the safety of our patients, visitors, staff and physicians is our upmost concern," Reeves said, following the shooting. "We will continue to debrief and review our security program and protocols. As the review continues, we will maintain 24/7 security coverage through Walden Security."

Walden Security is the outside contractor that has provided guards at all Erlanger facilities since March 2011. Until the recent shooting, guards at the Fort Oglethorpe hospital carried only radios - not guns.

State and federal regulatory agencies require the hospital to provide a complete account of the deadly incident, something that hospital officials say will take several weeks to complete.

Authorities involved with hospital administration and law enforcement agree there is probably no way to absolutely prevent such an event occurring. The hospital will review all security measures currently in place and see what could be done to enhance safety without impeding the public's access to health care.

Erlanger at Hutcheson, like most hospitals in the region, allows free entry to its buildings during visiting hours. Even so, access to many areas is restricted to authorized personnel who must use swipe keys to gain entry.

Entrance to the hospital is restricted throughout the night, save for the emergency room.

Officials, while reviewing security at a public facility that may have tens or even hundreds of visitors coming and going every minute of every day, said the public faces the same potential for harm whenever they enter a school, church or mall.

"This is the first time something like this has ever happened. It is a very isolated case," Charles said.