Jim Sawyer
Director of Security Services, Seattle Children’s Hospital

Jim Sawyer has a lot of “friends for life” at work.  Some of the “friends” Sawyer has made were at one time hostile, angry and frustrated clients, people tested by enormous stress levels.

Jim Sawyer is Security Director for Seattle Children’s Hospital, a 250-bed children’s hospital in the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Seattle, which is currently ranked as one of the top 10 children’s hospitals in America by U.S. News & World Report.

Sawyer and his team work every day in the hospital’s open environment to diffuse and support many hostile and angry parents who are frustrated by life’s recent events.  Those frustrations include but are not limited to money challenges, debt, bankruptcy, family strife and having a sick child.

Sawyer has many methods that helps him “make friends” and to diffuse many hostile situations. “Our security team uses a term called ‘restatement for clarification,’ which is paraphrasing,” Sawyer explains. “We listen to people’s complaints and restate what they’ve told us. Some people are stunned that they are being listened to versus having summary judgements made about them. By listening, we have the opportunity to build true rapport and have a ‘friend for life.’ Many of our new-found ‘friends’ were people who were initially hostile, if not threatening.”

Workplace violence is a recognized hazard in the healthcare industry. It can affect and involve workers, clients, customers and visitors. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data reported healthcare and social assistance workers were the victims of approximately 11,370 assaults by persons – a greater than 13-percent increase over the number of such assaults reported in 2009. Almost 19 percent of these assaults occurred in nursing and residential care facilities alone.

Sawyer says that this is his greatest security challenge, and he trains his staff to deescalate as much as possible. “A lot of clients in hospitals aren’t exactly refined, sensitive intellectuals. But if their child is sick, they are totally focused on their child, and we want to support them during that difficult time. I hear a lot of security organizations stress, ‘We have zero tolerance.’ Well, that’s nonsense. It’s a reactionary term. For healthcare, that’s toxic. You don’t want that. And we tolerate a lot, which we should. We get spit on, sworn at, cursed at with some frequency. And that’s because people are under stress. What we want is ‘zero incidents.’ You don’t want anything bad to happen. And that’s how you have to build your program on a ‘zero incidents philosophy.’”

His staff of 75 proprietary security officers is trained in customer service while quickly taking a thorough assessment of the client and the situation. “Our security officers are more about supporting people in crisis and treating people well than being an enforcer,” Sawyer explains. “If someone asks for help, we never turn them down. And the same time, with a smile on our faces, we’re doing a quick risk assessment to determine what, if any threat, they are to our hospital, patients and staff.”

“You have one shot to make a good first impression, and we work very hard on that,” Sawyer adds. “We issue 1,500 photo ID badges every day. We greet people at the hospital entrance, and we authenticate whether they belong here. And then if they are lost, we will walk them to their destination. We don’t want to become an Orwellian nightmare for somebody. But when they walk into the entrance of the hospital, they will find us.”

An additional area where Sawyer and his team have focused attention is the hospital parking lots. “We spend a lot of time on parking lots, because parking lots are inherently unsafe for many reasons. They are convergent zones for bad things like domestic violence and assault. In addition, your Average Joe burglar has changed to where they don’t spend their time robbing houses. They smash and grab cars. Our outside presence pays off.”

Sawyer examines security incidents on a monthly basis and assesses the success of the situation based on the resolution, with the goal always being a non-violent resolution. “We are fairly self critical and for a reason. Too many organizations drink their own Kool-Aid, so to speak, and never examine their practices and behaviors. That is all things wrong. Organizations need to ask ‘Are we a just culture?’ and ‘Do we make mistakes that anger people?’”

The hospital emergency room continues to be a challenge at Seattle Children’s, as it is with most hospitals. “People are in crisis,” he says. “Often, people come in, and they think their child is much worse than they are. We also see more cases of self-injurious children. Twenty-five years ago, I would see maybe one child a month come in who was self-injurious. Now we sometimes see five to 10 a day. That is quite a concern.”

The bottom line with his security strategy and risk mitigation, Sawyer says, is customer service. “It sounds basic, but if you’re working with the public, train your staff to make good first impressions, to deescalate a situation, to read body language, to read verbal and non-verbal cues and ultimately to treat people right. If you can do that, you can move mountains.”


Security Scorecard

  • Annual Revenue: $1.665 Billion
  • Security Budget: $3 Million

 Critical Issues

  • Workplace Violence
  • Staffing and Training
  • Patient Behavioral Health and Violence

 Security Mission

  • Active Shooter
  • Drug and Alcohol Testing 
  • Enterprise Resilience
  • Physical/Assets/Facilities
  • Regulatory Compliance
  • Security Technology and Integration      
  • Weather/Natural Disasters 

Read more thought-leading strategies and success stories from security frontrunners in more 2014 Security 500 Report profiles here.