COVID-19 field hospitals bring unique security concerns

by Jared Shelly

In the spring, the East Meadow of Central Park feels like a peaceful oasis compared to the bustle of Manhattan just steps away. The lush greenery attracts sunbathers, joggers, families, and business types hoping for a little fresh air on their lunch breaks.

Now, the area has transformed into a field hospital. A series of identical white medical tents line the grassy area near a softball field. It resembles temporary structures built by the military to treat injured soldiers — but it’s being used to help Mount Sinai Health System address patient overflow due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar structures are popping up across the country as COVID-19 overwhelms hospitals. These temporary healthcare facilities increase the capacity to treat patients, but bring a unique set of security challenges. They’re not walled buildings. There are no locked doors. There are multiple access points. Ensuring their security takes a combination of technology and old-school teamwork.

Establish a perimeter

Securing a field hospital starts by creating a perimeter far from the medical tents. That barrier gives security personnel ample time to catch an intruder who bypassed that layer of security and is attempting to gain access to the medical facility.

“Never let the structure itself be the first point of entry. Always surround it with something, ideally temporary fencing that’s eight feet tall. That’s the industry standard,” said Paul Grattan, policing fellow with the National Police Foundation and an active officer with a large metropolitan police force. (Grattan actually contracted the coronavirus but says his symptoms have all but subsided.)

Securing delivery and parking areas are also important. Medical personnel must know that if they park far from the hospital, they’ll have security watching over their vehicles and helping them get there safely.

“If the parking lot is a long distance from the facility, providing carts or other modes of transportation would be helpful,” said Timothy Williams, Vice Chairman at Pinkerton.

Understand who’s who and get organized

In a traditional hospital, security keeps a list of approved visitors, checks IDs and issues temporary badges. That’s tougher in a temporary facility. Ray O’Hara, executive vice president at corporate executive protection firm AS Solution, says that operators should require authorized personnel to pre-register online and share their photos so access can be granted when they arrive. Identity management is a crucial part of the process, but shouldn’t create bottlenecks.

“You really want to get the people in who need to be in as quickly as you can so they’re not standing in a line around the block,” said O’Hara. “You can’t slow this process down because you’re too cumbersome with all your requirements.”

Signage is a good way to direct visitors to check-in or security — but it’s also a security deterrent. The more organized and secure a temporary facility appears to the public, the more secure it will feel.

“A place that gives off the perception that it’s secure is more likely to end up being secure,” said Grattan. “If you’re conveying the perception that the facility is safe and secure, it’s going to enhance safety and security. We can never underestimate how we communicate to the public. The more effectively we do that, the better the whole operation looks.”

Power up with old-school and new-school tech 

A well-functioning field hospital must have a solid power source. Lighting, medical equipment, and security tools all need electricity — which means powerful portable generators must be in place.

“That’s part of the contingency plan. Not only do you need to make sure you have power but also the capacity to know how long generators last before they need to be refueled,” said Williams. “Make sure all those provisions and supply chain issues are in place.”

Surveillance cameras and motion detection systems can help identify intruders, especially if there is an expansive buffer zone between the public and the medical area.

“That would augment the security and if done correctly, could limit the number of security personnel you need watching those areas,” said Williams.

If possible, intrusion detection systems and access control systems can be deployed at various access points. Operators could also use body screening devices that stop people if a weapon is detected.

The most important tech tools just might be of an old-school variety: two-way radios.

“It’s nothing fancy or flashy but establishing communication is one of the first things you need when you’re setting up these facilities,” said Grattan. “Everyone operating inside the facility needs to have radio communications with a central command center or security office.”

Overall, securing a temporary location like a field hospital comes down to diligence.

Employees in all job functions must be trained to challenge or report any suspicious behavior.

“It’s an all-hands approach to security. It’s everybody’s responsibility,” said Grattan. “You want to encourage your employees to challenge someone who is not wearing their ID or who is suspicious. Or at the very least report them if they’re not comfortable confronting them head on.”

Jared Shelly is a freelance writer who writes about business and emerging technology. The opinions and positions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions held by Patriot One Technologies and inclusion of persons, companies, or methods herein should not be interpreted as an endorsement.

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