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Building a Strong Staff

PROVIDING SECURITY FOR a countywide hospital system in South Florida is a challenge. This teaching hospital has more than 1,500 beds in addition to facilities spread over a 76-acre campus. In conjunction with a private university medical school, the hospital provides a wide range of patient services, educational programs, a clinical setting for research activities, and a number of health-related community services. The organization is also the largest Medicaid provider and the largest public hospital in Florida.

The hospital’s security department consists of almost 200 personnel including uniformed officers, technical support staff, and administrators. With these resources, security is tasked with protecting 13,000 employees and the masses of patients and visitors that come through our system each day.

The challenge is to maximize the effectiveness of the security personnel to meet the needs of a hospital environment. Security does that through hiring, training, fitness, promotion, and awards.

Hiring. The security department will not hire anyone who does not meet its strict baseline requirements. It adheres to this standard even if it means that positions remain open and the security department has to pay overtime to existing staff. Experience has taught that besides the obvious result of substandard service, hiring anyone who does not meet this baseline results in lower morale and damages the reputation of the security department.

To help achieve these hiring objectives, the department has a dedicated recruiting and training manager. In addition, a good compensation package for security officers helps the organization attract candidates and retain them. Out of the approximately 200 applications that security gets every hiring period, the organization will interview around 20 applicants and hire a maximum of six or seven people.

Applicants go through three rounds of interviews. First, human resources will conduct a telephone interview and will then consult with security to narrow the number of applicants by weeding out those with less experience. Then an onsite interview is conducted with a panel of employees. The interview panel consists of two security administrators, one supervisor, and one officer. Applicants who pass this interview will undergo a final interview with the director of public safety, who makes the final decision.

Training. New employees attend an inhouse class lasting two to three weeks. During this time, the group also attends organizational orientation and some hospital-specific training, such as CPR and nonviolent physical intervention. Other skill-specific training is held at a local community college. These training programs include self-defense, handcuffing, defensive driving, and bike patrol instruction.

The security department hired a professional grant writer and went through the time consuming process of applying for federal grant money to pay for some of the training. The effort paid off, and the department now has the funds to maintain the training program without asking the hospital for money.

Once trained, new security personnel are put on probation for one year. They are constantly monitored by supervisors. If they do not measure up, they are let go.

As a result of these policies, turnover is considerably lower than the industry standard. Our turnover rate for the 2008 calendar year was approximately 3.5 percent. Low turnover not only saves the organization money, it improves security’s relationship with nonsecurity staff. Employees often comment that they feel safer knowing that the security officer helping them today will be there tomorrow, next month, and next year.

Fitness. Early in my tenure, I was sitting at my desk when I heard the code for an attempted vehicle burglary in progress called over the radio. “I have a visual on the suspect and am in pursuit,” called out one security officer.

We had been subject to vehicle burglaries in our garages, and this sighting was a major break for us. I grabbed my radio and headed for the door.

Arriving at the commuter rail station located on our campus, I saw that one of our security officers was holding the suspect in handcuffs while several other officers were securing the area. However, some of the officers looked like they were about to faint from exhaustion. A few were actually lying on the ground, and a golf cart had to be dispatched to pick them up. Surveying this scene, I knew we had a problem. Security put together an action plan and, with the support of senior management, we implemented a new fitness standard for future hires.

Having a standard is important because hospital security is a physically demanding job. We run, climb stairs, and occasionally restrain unruly visitors. Our security officers have had to physically defend themselves, rescue victims from fires, and pull those attempting suicide from the roof of a garage.

The security department worked closely with our employee health office and labor relations department to develop a fair and effective fitness test.

The test consists of two parts. The first part is a simple step test that lasts three minutes. The applicant’s heart rate is taken before and after the test to ensure that the heart rate recovers within a certain amount of time. The acceptable rate is age and gender specific. The second part of the test consists of picking up a 50-pound bag of rice, carrying it for 20 meters and putting it down.

All candidates for security positions must now pass this fitness test. If a candidate fails the fitness test the first time, he or she is given one chance to retake it. In addition, we forewarn all candidates that passing this test is a nonnegotiable condition of employment. We also advise candidates that if they are ill, they should reschedule the test.

We have been surprised at how many of our best candidates fail this test. It further reduces the number of candidates who are ultimately cleared for employment. However, despite this, we consider fitness testing an unqualified success.

We saw immediate reductions in “injuries on duty” and worker’s compensation claims among those hired after the fitness requirements were implemented. We have also noticed that calls for service are answered more quickly, and fewer officers are needed for calls that require a physical response.

Our ultimate goal is to require an annual fitness test for all uniformed security personnel. We plan to implement annual fitness testing incrementally. Advance notice would be given to all personnel that they have a certain time period—one year or longer—to prepare to pass the new fitness test. Test specifics and recommendations for preparation would be provided.

Promotion. It is department policy to promote from within. Every one of the security department’s supervisors and most of the administrators rose up through ranks. This policy improves morale. Security employees know that they are in control of their careers. If they wish to remain security officers for the entire term of their employment, they can. If they want to advance, the opportunity is there.

Also, promoting from within has helped the department run more efficiently. Every supervisor knows the specific challenges that security officers face. Supervisors have worked all the posts and zones security officers have worked and know the details of field operations. Awards. While security wants to recognize exemplary behavior, typical awards programs are not always appropriate for the type of work security officers do. To address security’s needs, the department started an awards program similar to that of many police departments.

Security bestows individual awards for specific acts above and beyond the call of duty. There are three valor medals: bronze, silver, and gold. These are awarded according to the level of danger a security officer faces and the seriousness of the incident.

There is also a medal of merit, which is awarded when a security officer does not face personal danger but still performs an act that rises above the call of duty. The award consists of a medal that can be worn on the uniform and a framed certificate.

Recommendations for these awards flow up through the ranks. Recommendations are submitted in writing to an awards committee consisting of two security administrators, one supervisor, and one officer. The committee members rotate every six months. The awards committee gathers information from all those involved in the incident and makes a decision based on a simple vote. The highest ranking member breaks any tie.

The most important aspect of these awards is that they are not tied to other performance measures. The only consideration is that the officer performed a specific act of valor or merit.

The awards program has been a significant morale booster. Recipients receive their awards in front of their peers during a shift briefing. A description of the incident is read aloud and photos are taken.

Security is currently considering issuing annual awards for those employees whose performance is consistently the best in various categories. Recipients would be chosen each calendar year by a committee whose makeup is similar to the one established for the valor and merit awards.

Using the tools we’ve developed, including hiring, training, and promoting our employees, we will continue to squeeze the maximum performance out of the resources we have and to search for every small advantage and tool that will assist us in fulfilling our mission.

Philip Albert, CPP, is assistant chief of corporate and uniform services within the division of public safety for the Jackson Health System in Miami, Florida. He is a member of ASIS International