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Security’s Role When Buildings Are Repurposed as Temporary Medical Facilities

In New York City, the Javits Center was outfitted as a temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients. In San Diego, the convention facility was established as a temporary homeless shelter. In Belgrade, Serbia, Hall 1 of Belgrade Fair was to be used as a quarantine center. In Madrid, Spain, the IFEMA convention complex became the country’s largest hospital.

Around the world, municipalities have enlisted large facilities to handle critical space needs as the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelms conventional infrastructure. The Safety and Security Task Force, a joint effort from the International Association of Convention Centres (AIPC) and the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry (UFI), took lessons from centers that had already been converted as well as existing emergency management resources and protocols, and produced Convention and Exhibition Centres as Temporary Emergency Facilities. While the guide is intended as a general reference applicable to many different situations when a facility might be repurposed, such as during a weather catastrophe, it was researched and written during the current COVID-19 pandemic. According to the report, security is a critical function when a facility is repurposed:

“From the start, keep security and safety front and center. Security on site may be controlled by others but keep a team of your own. Your own interests are best known to you, and you are best placed to have these covered. Don’t assume others will do this for you. A security-minded focus should remain during the busy period of the build.”

Security Management had the opportunity to speak with Glenn Schoen, who coordinated the AIPC-UFI Safety and Security Task Force and helped author the report. He provided an inside look at some of the most important factors for convention center security leaders to consider at the different stages of the center’s transition to a different function and back again.

Schoen said that when facilities are repurposed as medical facilities, as so many have been as part of the pandemic crisis, that health and safety requirements are necessarily the top priority. However, security is a close second. “Security leaders need to realize from the start how important they are when it comes to this whole effort,” he said. “They need to be involved in the planning at the very start, through the build out, while it is functioning, and during breakdown. Security is a key element to be successful at this.”

There are many readily apparent actions security leaders need to take as a site begins a transition, including assessing current staffing capacity (and anticipated future capacity in case of illness) and reaching out to key vendors. As detailed in the report and highlighted by Schoen, there are also several considerations that may not be as apparent.

An important one is accepting the idea that security procedures and protocols typically kept confidential will need to be shared to a wider circle. Sharing what is alarmed, how the alarm systems work, and similar matters is typically closely held information, but security directors will likely need to share this information with the facility’s new security partners. Schoen says facilities may want to consider preparing nondisclosure agreements for the most sensitive information. Other information that is typically not shared widely also needs to be rethought. “When you think about security procedures, they’re typically things you keep to yourself,” Schoen said. “Now you want to have them written out, updated as needed, and distributed widely. We’ve found that spreading the knowledge of how to secure your facility to others is important so they can help you in the security effort.

Another change Schoen noted is that often the security mindset will need to shift from being a facility with set hours, after which an alarm can be set and security staffing and patrols can be kept to a minimum, to a facility that is open 24/7 and needs an increased security presence.

Schoen also recommends determining quickly what additional needs you may have, whether it’s acquiring personal protective equipment or additional frontline security officers or security cameras or badging capacity. “You need to realize you might be in a fight for resources when it comes to contractors. There may be other facilities in the same location or region that are also asking for extra security or extra monitoring. Act fast. Go through trusted parties, but don’t just make big demands. It might be a very difficult time for everybody, so it’s important to work well with your partners.”

Another factor to consider is that the facility may be adding security risks that never had to be accounted for previously. For example, Schoen cited the experience of centers being used for emergency hospitals, which added hazardous substances, such as large oxygen tanks and fuel bladders for helicopters. In addition, medical waste must be handled differently than other forms of waste.

Schoen noted that facilities that have emphasized crisis management preparedness in the past have been best positioned in the current pandemic. It may be unlikely that they prepared for this exact situation—a pandemic where their facility would be repurposed as a medical facility at the same time as potentially being hit with a staffing crisis as staff are incapacitated—but the experience is valuable nonetheless. “We’re finding that those exercises and joint planning are really paying off,” he said. “They’ve gotten to know local officials in those exercises, and these are the same people they’re working with in this situation.” Having already built a relationship with them, and specifically having built that relationship around crisis planning, has proven beneficial.

One last piece of advice from Schoen: on the front end and the back end, flexibility is key.

When the planning to rapidly transform the existing facility into whatever it is to become begins, a head-spinning number of variables will continue to be brought up and incorporated. “Be prepared for extreme frustration,” Schoen said. “We had one facility where in 10 days time being set up as a hospital, the internal layout was changed 14 times.”

On the flip side, expect the initial tear down to happen quickly—a matter of just a couple of days—followed by a longer period where the facility will need repair and refurbishment as a result of damage and alterations caused by the occupation.

“There’s never been a more profound time to be a security professional,” Schoen said. “This is a time for you to truly realize the value you bring to your organization.”

Another good resource for security professionals facing this type of situation is the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety’s (IAHSS) draft document examining security when facilities are repurposed as medical centers: IAHSS Security Design Guideline for Healthcare Facilities—Draft Guidance Document Alternate Care Sites—Medical Surge Capacity. Where the AIPC-UFI document is intended for convention center management, the IAHSS document goes into detail about the design and build specifications through the lens of security.