Security considered tight at Western Psych, but lobby proved vulnerable
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The shootings at Western Psych occurred despite rigid security set up out of fear that just such an incident could occur.
That's because Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC is the region's largest psychiatric facility, sees many of the area's most mentally troubled people and has an emergency room where people can be involuntarily committed.
But two people were killed and seven others were injured Thursday in the only completely unsecured area of the building, the first-floor lobby.
"It happened in the lobby in part because it's the only place it could happen," one employee said. "It's frustrating, knowing the severity of the patients."
Another employee said the incident is unusual because of the otherwise tight security in the building.
"That's why this is so shocking, because security is so tight there," another employee said. "You have to expect that because it's a mental health hospital and people come there at low points in their life and they're desperate, so you have to think like they do."
As a result, the in-patient units on 10 of the floors have locked doors, and visitors have to be buzzed in by employees. Western Psych's emergency room on the first floor is even more secure, with guards, multiple locked doors and airport-like checks of possessions and use of a hand-held metal detectors.
But Western Psych's security guards -- at least two of whom typically would have been in the lobby where the shootings occurred -- do not carry firearms, though they are highly trained to restrain people without harming them, another employee of the facility said.
"The issue of security and weapons has been an issue of intense debate for years" within Western Psychiatric, a third employee said. "You don't want to make it a fortress, but you want it to feel secure."
Anyone can enter the lobby without going through a metal detector. And there are no guards whose primary job is to watch the front door.
Because of all of that, the first employee, who works closely with patients, said Thursday's incident has been a nightmare he has contemplated the entire time he has worked there.
"I've literally imagined this fearful situation in my head," the employee said, "where a disgruntled, troubled patient literally walks into the lobby and shoots someone dead."
All three Western Psychiatric employees asked to remain anonymous for fear that UPMC would punish them for talking to a reporter.
It was not known whether the shooter was a former patient, but, given the "nature of who comes there," the employee said, "I'd doubt this is random; he was either a former patient or the disgruntled family member of a former patient."
The employee said he became incensed when he listened to the press conference Thursday where Western Psychiatric's president and CEO, Claudia Roth, said safety was always a concern in the building.
"It hasn't been," he said. "But maybe it will take what happened today to put pressure on them to improve security. It needs to be bolstered."
Ms. Roth said at the press conference that the building's security would be evaluated.
At psychiatric wards and in hospitals, shootings are "relatively uncommon," said Larry Barton, a professor at The American College in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County, whose research includes crisis leadership, workplace violence and threat prevention.
That may be because medical facilities tend to be diligent when it comes to security and staff training, he said.
But just because "you have physical security does not mean that you can always prevent one of these tragedies," he said, citing the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.
Currently, everyone who comes in the front door into the small, 8-foot-wide lobby is supposed to check in at a registration desk. But the only people who get quizzed are people who stop to say they're visiting one of the 250 to 300 daily in-patients, employees said.
Instead of a security guard there, "the first person a visitor sees is a secretary," one of the employees said.
The desk, to the right inside the entrance, is typically staffed by one or two Western Psych receptionists -- one of whom was shot as many as four times Thursday.
The employees are supposed to quiz visitors and issue a badge for entrance to the secure floors. Once on the secure floors via an elevator, a nurse or another staff member -- not a security guard -- is supposed to check the badge and buzz open a door to each floor before using a metal-detecting, hand-held wand to check for weapons.
But nonpatient visitors, including staff, students or the general public, regularly walk through the lobby onto the elevator to gain access to the nonsecure floors, the employee said.
Getting into the emergency room, known as the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, is the most difficult to access. Its entrance is off the main lobby, and a visitor has to pass through two locked doors, which are monitored and watched by one or two unarmed security guards in the lobby.
Once inside the DEC, another security guard checks a person's possessions and also uses a metal-detecting wand to check for weapons.
With both the in-patient units and the DEC accessed only through locked doors, it makes the open nature of the lobby that much more obvious, the employee said.
If there were an armed guard watching the front door, "at the very least it would have made the threshold for action of the person higher, and maybe prevented this from happening."
First Published March 9, 2012 12:00 am