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Hospital weighs security in wake of double slaying

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Miracles and tragedies happen in the hospital every day.

While one person struggles for his final breath in one room, life begins in another room. Finding a way to protect such a place against violence in an unobtrusive manner is a puzzle for hospital officials.

"You don't want to be so overt that it disrupts the healing process," said Jill Vicory, spokeswoman for the Utah Hospitals and Health Systems Association. "But at the same time you want people to feel safe and secure."

Hospital officials are questioning their security plans after Kimball Jencks, 84, shot and killed his wife, Beata Jencks, 81, and then turned the gun on himself at Cottonwood Hospital Wednesday night.

Police said the man was a frequent visitor during visiting hours. He allegedly shot his wife once at close range while she was in her hospital bed before taking his own life.

Cottonwood Hospital limits access to visitors after 8 p.m. Anyone who visits after that time must sign in and tell hospital officials where they are going.

The hospital employs an around-the-clock security force, which uses multiple security cameras both in and outside the hospital to monitor security, Intermountain Health Care spokesman Jess Gomez said.

But is that enough? Dr. George Middleton, a urologist who has practiced at Cottonwood Hospital for 25 years, said hospital officials should consider using metal detectors to keep weapons off hospital grounds.

Other doctors disagree. Dr. Steven Rokeach, chairman of the hospital's internal medicine department, said he wouldn't want to work in an environment where doctors and patients pass through a metal detector daily to get inside the hospital.

"We certainly can't turn our hospitals into prisons," Gomez said. "It's a real fine line that we walk in balancing the safety and security of our employees and our patients and also maintain an environment that nurtures and promotes healing. We work very hard to do that.

"I don't know that we want to get to a point that we self-fortify the hospital."

IHC's hospitals have screened for weapons at their hospitals in the past. During the 2002 Winter Olympics, some IHC clinics and hospitals installed checkpoints to check for weapons and other dangerous objects.

Weapons are not allowed on hospital grounds, Gomez said. If someone does bring a gun when visiting the hospital, officials put the weapon in a locked container and return it once the visitor leaves.

There is no statewide policy mandating security protocol at hospitals, Vicory said. Each hospital and health care system individually decides what its security needs are.

The Utah Hospitals and Health Systems Association policy statement on weapons in Utah hospitals states that "hospitals and public mental health facilities have always been a safe place of refuge for the sick and injured, and the possibility of weapons compromises the safety of employees, patients and visitors."

Gomez said Wednesday's murder-suicide is alarming, but the incident was not a security breakdown at the hospital. He said IHC constantly evaluates its security needs to maintain the highest level of security.

E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com