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"We think we're probably one of the only hospitals with a unit like this."
Building Muscle
In security, an elite team has been created to respond to everything from trespassers to biochemical attacks.


Introducing Hopkins' special forces unit (left to right): Leon Lovess, Cpt. Mike Ridgell, Harry Koffenberger, overseer, Thomas Young, and Karol Nelson.

Although it may not always seem so, the Department of Corporate Security Services is a jumping place. Whenever there is a trespasser on campus, an accident on Broadway, or a dignitary who warrants protection, it falls under the jurisdiction of security. If you've never thought much about this, and instead perceived the department as quiet and low-profile, that's good. It means security is doing its job.

A couple of years ago, however, at a departmental retreat, there were inklings that the staff was being asked to put out more fires than it could control. Supervisors, especially, were being pulled from their daily responsibilities for the crisis at hand. And their leader, Joe Coppola, who credits much of the department's success over the past eight years to its supervisory ranks, worried that the situation was taking a toll on his front line.

After Sept. 11, when terrorists unthinkably attacked ordinary Americans working at their desks, the demands on security forces everywhere skyrocketed. Hopkins was no exception. Hundreds of phone calls had to be answered, thousands of packages inspected, and dozens of "suspicious powdery substances" investigated.

When the department finally got time to catch its breath, it came up with what it thinks will be a better organized, more coordinated way to respond to threats: the special response unit, unveiled on Sept. 1.

"You're seeing the department move to another level," says Coppola, vice president of Corporate Security for Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The new unit, recognizable by its members' khaki and olive uniforms and black boots, is composed of two, 2-person teams. Designated as the "first responders" in the event of a biological or chemical incident at any JHM entity, they also are responsible for covering any criminal activity on the East Baltimore campus.

"That's where the unit pays dividends to us," Coppola points out. "When there's not a crisis, they're dedicated to the issues arising every single day that pull our supervisors away from what we hired them for--to deal with staff and help our customers. As a whole, we'll be a better-run organization."

The team members will not come to their new jobs unprepared. Their elevated responsibilities called for specialized training, not only in surveillance, investigation and self- defense but also basic toxicology, explosive-device recognition and hazardous-material assessment.

"We've looked around," says Mike Ridgell, captain of the special response unit, who had an 18-year career with the Maryland State Police before coming to work for Hopkins 18 months ago, "and we think we're probably one of the only hospitals with a unit like this."

Not surprisingly, interest among the security staff was high when the positions were posted. Thirty-four people applied for four slots, despite the rigorous application process. Candidates had to pass a written test to evaluate their detective skills, demonstrate their physical fitness, undergo multiple interviews, and finally pass a psychological test. Eight people emerged as finalists.

With that, Coppola selected the final four, and decided to reserve the other four "to have a bench who might train with the unit from time to time."

Being able to offer opportunities for upward mobility is another plus of the program, Coppola says. "With every company and the federal government beefing up security right now, we're in great competition for our people and for good people. This is a real morale booster."

There's another way in which the new program, which was created out of the department's existing budget, does not exist in a vacuum.

"It's not just security doing this," points out Harry Koffenberger, director of corporate security services, who is running the unit. "The leadership at all the entities is moving forward and getting prepared under the same philosophy: We're training heavily for an event we hope never happens, but we've got to be prepared."

-Mary Ellen Miller

 

 

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