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In a two-pronged response to an attempted suicide in a Columbia, SC hospital emergency room, the state prison agency is reviewing its procedures and equipment while the hospital decided to open a separate waiting room for inmates.
On Wednesday, questions were raised about how easily a woman patient was able to pull a gun from a prison officer’s holster and shoot herself in the head at Palmetto Health Richland Tuesday night. The woman remained in critical condition Wednesday.
The Corrections Department acknowledged the armed guard was wearing a low-security holster. A holster’s “retention rating” determines the ease of drawing the weapon.
Neither the hospital nor Columbia police would identify the woman or the corrections officers or discuss the circumstances of the shooting that put other emergency room patients and hospital staff at risk.
Prison spokesman Josh Gelinas released some details about how the inmate was transported.
He said two officers had accompanied a high-risk female inmate for medical treatment when the patient grabbed the gun.
One officer was not armed, as Corrections policy inside hospitals dictates. Gelinas would not explain the reasoning behind the policy, citing security reasons.
One of the guards had been employed since June, he said, but he would not say whether it was the armed guard.
Gelinas would not disclose whether the officers are being disciplined, but they were not at work Wednesday.
“While no policy can protect against every possibility, we will continue to review our policies and procedures,” he said.
Columbia police Capt. Thomas Dodson said he saw the holster from a distance.
“I can only guess it was not a high-level security holster,” said Dodson, whose detectives are leading the investigation. But he added: “Even the best-security holster can be defeated.”
Holsters generally are rated from zero to three, with three being more secure, Dodson said.
The prison agency said it was a Level 1 holster.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issues Level 2 holsters to itsroughly 35 law enforcement officers.
“One of the things we do — and I certainly hope the Department of Corrections would, too — is semiannual reviews on what to do when someone tries to take your gun,” DHEC spokesman Thom Berry said.
Tim James, third in command at the State Law Enforcement Division and formerly chief of security at Lexington Medical Center, agreed.
“It boils down to weapon retention ... or good training,” James said, declining to discuss the facts of the shooting because SLED is assisting Columbia police.
James and his successor at the West Columbia hospital, Joel Huggins, said law enforcement officers are armed when they are inside hospitals, though there is no written policy.
“It’s a good idea to have that quick response,” James said. “A hospital is a city within a city. Anything that can happen on Main Street USA can happen in a hospital.”
National and S.C. hospital organizations said they are concerned about emergency room safety after Tuesday’s shooting.
“This is certainly an incident we would be concerned about,” said Elizabeth Zhani of The Joint Commission, previously called the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations. That group accredits 80 percent of the nation’s hospitals, including Palmetto Health Richland.
The commission learned of the shooting from reporters, Zhani said.
Palmetto Health spokeswoman Tammie Epps said it would comply with the timetables for reporting to the commission and state hospital regulators.
The S.C. Hospital Association has no guidelines for situations like this, said spokeswoman Patti Smoake.
“Sometimes you don’t really address things until something tragic happens,” Smoake said, adding the association board might ask for a review.
“It is very serious,” Smoake said. “I’m sure it’s being addressed in hospitals all over the state today.
“I’ve been with the association for 31 years and this is the first time I’ve heard of this happening.”
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