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VIPs on Campus: Guarding Congresswoman Giffords

Here’s how the University of Arizona Medical Center and Memorial Hermann Healthcare Center effectively managed the care, security, privacy and press coverage of Arizona Congresswoman Giffords while she was being treated at their facilities.

Note: This is part 1 of “Guarding Gabrielle,” Campus Safety magazine’s three-part exclusive coverage of how two healthcare organizations protected Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Part 2 on logical access control and part 3 on managing the media will appear on in the next two weeks.

On Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011 Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D – Ariz.) was meeting with her constituents at a Safeway supermarket in Casas Adobes, Ariz., when 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot her in the head, gravely wounding her. He then opened fire on the crowd, killing six people, including a federal judge and nine-year-old girl. Thirteen other individuals were also injured.

Although the attack was over quickly, it was clear that the healing and recovery process for Giffords and  many of the other victims who survived the attack was going to be long and difficult.

What wasn’t clear at the time, however, was the nature of the threat to Giffords and the other survivors. Did the gunman act alone, or was he part of a larger conspiracy? Would someone attempt to finish what Loughner had started? For several weeks after the assassination attempt, no one knew for sure, and the University of Arizona Medical Center and Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in Texas — the healthcare institutions that treated Giffords — weren’t going to take any chances.

Arizona Medical Center Receives 20 Minutes Notice

The University of Arizona Medical Center, southern Arizona’s only level 1 trauma center, was the first institution to treat Giffords, as well as the majority of the victims of the attack. Officials at the hospital  were notified about 20 minutes before the first victim of the shooting was admitted. At the time, all hospital officials knew about the scope of the tragedy was that there had been a shooting with several casualties.

Related Article: Protecting VIP Patient Privacy

“Normally, we do a lockdown of the facility, which means we limit access to only those who need to be here until we have a better handle on the situation and who was involved,” says  University of Arizona Medical Center Director of Security Harry Kirlin. “That was done immediately as far as the emergency room was concerned. When we became aware of the extent of the number of patients and their identities, we extended that lockdown to the entire facility until we had an idea of what was going on.”<p>Two weeks after the attack, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was transferred to the Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center (TMC). After her stay at TMC, she had physical therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann. The healthcare center is located in Houston, has 11 locations, including TMC and TIRR, and more than 3,000 beds. Its campus public safety department has approximately 240 sworn and nonsworn officers, 45 of whom are armed.</p>

That meant everyone coming into the hospital had to go through the main entrance. Initially, there were three workstations to check in patients, but that number was soon increased to six so that waiting times would be reduced.

Individuals wanting to enter the facility were searched and required to show their IDs, and their appointments were verified before they could enter. K9s checked for explosives. Special badges were created for individuals (law enforcement, medical staff and visitors) requiring access to Giffords’ location.

Secret Service Survey Helps Prepare Hospital
While access control was being ramped up, the hospital also experienced an immediate influx of law enforcement personnel from the local sheriff’s department, police department, FBI and Capitol Police Department. Seven or eight Capitol Police officers guarded Gifford’s room 24/7. The Secret Service was also involved and was very visible when President Barrack Obama and his wife visited the congresswoman only a week after the tragedy. The Secret Service conducts an annual survey of the hospital, just in case one of its protected parties comes to the campus. This survey, which takes into account things like the number of hospital beds and helicopter pads, helped the medical center prepare for Giffords and the other patients, as well as the president’s visit.

View our photo gallery of Memorial Hermann and Congresswoman Giffords

Despite all of the law enforcement personnel involved, Kirlin says there weren’t any petty turf battles.

“I’m an ex-cop, and usually in situations like these, you have a certain amount of jurisdictional jealousies, but we didn’t have them here,” he says. “Everybody worked very well together. I think it was because everyone was so shocked by the incident that everyone’s focus was on making sure everything went well.”

Memorial Hermann Plans Help Smooth Transition

Cooperation was also critical when Giffords was transferred approximately two weeks later to the Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center (TMC) in Houston. Although Memorial Hermann officials only received about 24 hours notice that their institution would be taking over the medical care of the congresswoman, they quickly worked out a transition plan for her. It included how she would be transported from Memorial Hermann’s Life Flight helicopter pad through the facility, security details, the clinical aspect of her arrival, as well as communications for the public and Memorial Hermann employees.

About the Author


Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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