Legislators approve money for safety alarms at Atascadero State Hospital

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comApril 4, 2013 

Critical legislative support was given this week for a new safety system that will equip Atascadero State Hospital employees with new safety alarms they can use when attacked by patients.

ASH could get the devices as soon this fall, hospital officials previously said.

The personal alarms, already in place at Napa State Hospital, are small Wi-Fi devices that employees will wear around their neck or belt to summon immediate help to their location within the hospital.

The new system is designed to notify police and security officials in under 10 seconds and provide location information anywhere at the facilities, according to the manufacturer.

ASH and Colinga State Hospital are the last two hospitals to get the devices. The state is currently in the process of expanding the alarm system at Metropolitan and Patton state hospitals. Overall, the project costs the state $47.9 million.

The batch of alarms for ASH and Coalinga was brought forward this week in a $16.6 million request for funding unanimously approved by a five-member state Assembly budget subcommittee late Wednesday.

ASH, one of five state hospitals, currently has an outdated alarm system for its approximately 2,100 employees.

“Some of these facilities are over 100 years old, so we’re beefing up security where needed, which also enhances efficiency,” Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said in an email to The Tribune. She chairs the budget subcommittee.

The alarm funding proposal still needs additional approvals before heading to Gov. Jerry Brown in June.

According to the Los Angeles Times, demands for an improved alarm system intensified in 2010 after a psychiatric technician was strangled in a courtyard on the fenced hospital grounds of Napa State Hospital, where the old devices did not work.

Hospital safety continues to be a concern statewide. At ASH last year, employee complaints resulted in state safety investigators saying the hospital didn’t effectively protect staff from violence, noting that an average of 10 staff injuries per month from patient attacks occurred through September last year. Hospital administrators are currently working to streamline practices with investigators and staff.

“The alarm system at Napa has dramatically changed our employees’ viewpoint of how committed we are to safety,” Department of State Hospitals Chief Deputy Director Kathy Gaither said at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

“Are we done to fixing all our problems? No. But are we on the path? Yes, we are.”

The proposal to roll out the last leg of the alarms was among 10 funding requests from the Department of State Hospitals for fiscal year 2013-14, which ranged from getting new fire alarms at Metropolitan State Hospital to improving the security perimeter fencing at Patton.

For the alarms, psychiatric technicians at Napa designed lanyards that would break apart in three places after employees expressed overwhelming concern that the necklace-type devices could be used to strangle employees. The state has adopted that lanyard design for all five state hospitals and will manufacture the lanyards in-house, saying it would have more control over the safety that way. The DSH estimates that approximately one-third of the lanyards will need replacement annually, according to a report from Assembly subcommittee staff.

Specifics on how many alarms ASH would receive weren’t immediately available.

Wednesday’s move to approve the funding also includes two new IT positions at ASH to implement the new safety technologies the alarms will bring to the site. The plan is to give each state hospital two such positions for the task.

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