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Will COVID-19 Affect Weapons Detection on Your Campus?

August 31st, 2020 by Guest Communications


Written by: Amy Rock

As K-12 and college campuses make customized plans for reopening in the fall and hospitals continue to treat coronavirus patients, it is becoming increasingly clear that no aspect of campus safety and security will go untouched by the pandemic. Amendments to all policies and procedures have been made and will continue to be made as more information is learned about the virus.

One aspect of campus security not often seen in discussions surrounding the coronavirus are metal detectors — a technology that has already been a contentious subject matter for years. Proponents believe deploying the technology helps with weapons confiscation and deterrence while also helping put peoples’ minds at ease. Opponents argue detectors send the wrong message, create a “prison-like” feel and are discriminatory.

And now, thanks to COVID-19, there are even more questions to be considered regarding the technology.

Campus Safety spoke with three practitioners to get their perspectives on top concerns and challenges regarding weapons detection in the era of COVID-19, as well as their predictions for the future of the technology on K-12, higher education and hospital campuses.


Unlike K-12 and college campuses, hospitals have remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Significant protocol changes had to be made and implemented immediately to protect patients, visitors and staff — including updates to weapons screening policies.

We spoke with Paul Sarnese, assistant vice president of safety, security and emergency management at Virtua Health, about the challenges his officers faced regarding the logistics of people and weapon screening in the early days of the pandemic. Among the most challenging protocols was social distancing.

“Our people and weapons screening areas were not designed with social distancing in mind,” he says. “We had to be creative and modify our processes. We would normally allow an entire family to enter our screening space, but with COVID-19, we had to only allow one person in at a time as often as we could to enforce social distancing.”

This proved particularly challenging when an adult would come in with a child or multiple children. In these situations, Virtua, which is South New Jersey’s largest healthcare provider, chose to allow children to be accompanied by an adult through the screening process in order to reduce anxiety at a time when tensions were extremely high and much less was known about the virus. However, when several adults presented to the emergency department simultaneously, only one would enter screening at a time.

Security officers were given the added responsibility of asking travel history questions to all who entered the facilities to identify if they were at risk of having the virus. They were trained on who to contact if they identified an at-risk patient or guest.

While these additional steps have certainly lengthened the people and weapons screening process, from a positive standpoint, Sarnese says the pandemic has reinforced that security officers are on the frontlines and must be protected. As a result, he believes the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly gloves and face coverings, is likely to become standard for officers. Hand hygiene stations placed outside screening areas are likely to remain as well, he says.

Another silver lining is that signs placed on the floor to provide cues for social distancing have also inadvertently supported the desire to create a pause in between screening guests, giving officers more time to thoroughly screen all visitors.

View the slideshow to see Virtua security officers conducting people and weapons screening during the pandemic.

Predictions for the Future

When asked if he has any concerns regarding the future of metal detection due to the coronavirus, Sarnese says “absolutely not.” In fact, he’s excited to see the advances in technology that may come from it.

“I believe we will continue to see security technology merge with infection prevention strategies. I believe that people and weapons screening areas of the future will reside in negative pressure spaces to eliminate the exposer to airborne pathogens,” he predicts. “Walk-through metal detectors of the future will not only scan for weapons, but will also be equipped with facial recognition and thermal cameras to scan for body temperatures.”

When metal is detected, the response would remain the same. However, when an elevated body temperature is identified, the clinical team would be notified, he continues. “The detectors will also keep a running count of the number of elevated body temperatures to provide early warning of a potential community outbreak of a communicable disease.”

Sarnese predicts newly constructed vestibules will also be designed with negative pressure and motion detectors that would be activated as individuals approach the space. When someone enters, they would choose their preferred language and their thermal image would appear for security and clinical teams to monitor.

“The ‘system’ will welcome us and guide us to stand on a spot on the floor to be scanned for weapons/metal and body temperature. If a weapon is detected, the vestibule doors will remain secured and a notification will be sent to security personnel. If an elevated body temperature is identified, the clinical team will be notified,” he describes. “Once we are authorized to enter the emergency department, we will be misted with a disinfectant, and then we will be guided by the ‘system’ to either the red or green waiting areas — red for those with temperatures and green for those without.”

K-12 Schools

It is undeniable that the coronavirus has and will continue to significantly affect most K-12 school districts’ budgets, including security, which may have an impact on weapons detection.

“Every district we have spoken to has expended considerable funding for COVID-19-related expenses that were not in their annual budget and will continue to do so this school year,” says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International. “We are already seeing layoffs and elimination of positions in client districts. The superintendents, CFOs and cabinet officials we have been working with are all very concerned that if the economy does not continue to recover, they will face budget cuts due to drops in homeownership and home values as occurred after the 2008 recession.”

For many schools that have or are considering weapons detection technology, the cost is arguably the biggest factor slowing its adoption. The cost of the initial purchase of a metal detector is only a fraction of the total resources needed to operate it. With already limited budgets for many, if revenues drop, it could impact the significant staffing levels needed for effective entry point metal detection, Dorn adds.

Limiting Contact Between Staff, Visitors

As we have learned over the last few months, social distancing and limiting physical contact with people is the best way to prevent the disease from spreading. But, even before the coronavirus swept the nation, people were already becoming more conscious of physical contact with others.

“Efforts to reduce the need for ‘hands-on’ secondary screening without compromising the reliability of screening were a good idea before COVID-19 hit,” says Dorn.

Because of this, many campuses were already in the process of upgrading from older weapons detection units to multi-zone walk through units — something that will certainly come in handy with the need to limit person-to-person contact during the pandemic.

For weapons detection in K-12 schools, Dorn also says developing logical protocols to limit exposure and training staff on how to implement those protocols should also be a top priority.

One protocol that would significantly help reduce contact between screening personnel and those being screened while still providing a high level of deterrence is the use of demonstrably random alternating numerical sequencing to select a smaller number of people being screened but screening more thoroughly than is typically the case with campus metal detection, says Dorn.

“A supervisor might use a series of cards that have a series of numbers such as 7, 3, 9, 6, 2, 4 and 8. For this sequence of numbers, every seventh person would be screened until seven people have been screened, then every third person would be screened until three people have been screened, etc., until the last of the eighth people screened for the last number in the sequence have been screened,” Dorn describes. “At this point, a different card or computer-generated series of numbers would be used and the sequences would be documented.”

According to Dorn, this particular approach to weapons screening has additional advantages beyond the threat of coronavirus exposure, including:

  • Reduces the chances that individual screeners will select who will be screened or how thoroughly they will be screened due to bias
  • Makes it difficult for someone to move their position in line to avoid screening
  • Reduces the invasiveness of screening to a much smaller number of people per day/event
  • Makes it easier to prevent unreliable screening approaches

Dorn emphasizes that viable written procedures and protocols are much more complex than as described above, and they need to be developed based on the types of setting and events where metal detectors are used with a lot of variables in between.

Although metal detectors can be reasonably effective when adapted to specific environments, they won’t prevent all crimes, which is why a layered weapons screening process using combinations of behavioral analytics and analytic camera software is also key.

“Too many venues are using badly dated metal detection approaches that are easily defeated and present more of a façade of security than what is possible,” warns Dorn. “We can do better than what I most typically see and should do better when metal detectors are deemed to be appropriate.”

Higher Education

For institutions of higher education, metal detectors are most often deployed for athletics, concerts or other events at large stadiums. Since so many unknowns remain regarding the coronavirus and what’s the best strategy for reopening in the fall, most campuses have made several contingency plans.

New Mexico State University (NMSU) Police Department’s Chief Stephen Lopez says even though his department is still waiting to hear what special events the Las Cruces campus may be able to hold this fall, his team has identified several considerations and subsequent security plans regarding screenings and metal detection.

If No Fans Are Allowed

“Even if no fans are allowed, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a potential threat,” Lopez says. “We will still need to ensure the physical safety of participants, officials and staff.”

It is likely these events will be broadcast to a large fan base, which might still make them attractive targets for individuals wanting to make a statement.

“As such, standard protocols like facility sweeps (including checking for explosives), security checkpoints and perimeter control, and physical lockdown of facilities leading up to the game will be just as important as they were before,” he adds.

If Fans Are Allowed

For events where fans are allowed, screening criteria at gates will likely need to be modified, including the use of clear bags.

“This has provided a good opportunity to require clear, small bags for any personal items so that the security team doesn’t have to handle someone’s belongings, which would risk possible disease transmission in both directions,” says Lopez.

Clear bags policies have been implemented at hundreds of stadiums across the country, so it will be interesting to see how many other campuses follow suit — perhaps some that were previously hesitant for various reasons.

Another challenge security personnel will need to consider is the inability to pick up on facial cues since face masks will likely be in use — either by choice or requirement.

“The face masks also present an opportunity to conceal possible small weapons,” Lopez adds. “While we don’t do pat-downs of patrons absent reasonable, articulable suspicion consistent with a Terry stop-and-frisk, this is one more area officers will have to remember to check, while at the same time keeping in mind that asking someone to remove a mask may also increase the risk of exposure — either unintentional or through intentional acts by a suspect, including spitting.”

Lopez and his team have also evaluated the potential for a suspect to have a handcuff key hidden in a face mask or a wire in the nose bridge that can be used as a lock pick.

“It may be a best practice to take off any face mask being worn by an arrestee — after donning appropriate PPE — and replacing it with one provided by the police department and then securing the detainee’s mask,” he says. “Face masks might also provide an opportunity to conceal drugs, so removing the face mask might also help alleviate the potential for a prisoner to try to swallow a drug supply to avoid detection.”

Although the school’s stadium has a large bank of walk-through metal detectors backed up by handheld wands for secondary screening, Lopez admits he’s not quite sure yet if their use will change much due to the pandemic.

“Once we have identified events where they will be used — i.e. where fans will be present — we plan to set them up and run extensive testing with a variety of face coverings to determine if any metal components cause any issues.”

However, in the altered environment, Lopez does expect to extensively utilize the campus’ surveillance camera system, along with patrols in parking areas, to help identify people who may be trying to conceal items in face masks or are engaging in other suspicious activity before they approach event facilities.

Staff Must Be Protected

Whether fans are allowed in or not, it is vital for screening staff to be thoroughly protected. Like hospital security personnel, they too are frontline workers, ensuring the physical safety of those on campus while risking their own.

“This includes making sure we have adequate protective equipment for them and that procedures are in place and monitored to ensure they are used consistently,” says Lopez. “If they will have close contact with people of unknown health status, we may elect to require they wear N95 respirators, but that use also means they need to be fit-tested to ensure they are actually giving the expected benefit.”

So far, NMSU found one single-size N95 model that has worked for over 88% of staff, which has helped cut down on the number of models and sizes that must be kept on hand.

While weapons detection at large events may look different post-COVID-19, Lopez doesn’t expect there to be significant changes in other areas on campus — something only time will tell.

This article appeared on Campus Safety News and is shared with consent:

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