The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, is a nationally ranked physical medicine and rehabilitation research hospital based in Chicago, Ill. Founded in 1953, the organization is designed for patient care, education and research in physical medicine and rehabilitation. The staff works with pediatric and adult patients of all ages with the most complex, severe conditions.

Christopher Schleder — who had completed six years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force and was unsure about his next career move — knew about the facility before he applied for a Director of Security Services role because his dad had been a patient for several years. “It looked like an interesting job, and I knew about the organization, so it was an easy decision to apply for it,” he says. “Plus, I knew that I liked healthcare security from previous roles with Advocate Christ Medical Center and OSF Little Company of Mary Medical Center, both in the Chicagoland area.”

The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab shares a medical campus with several healthcare facilities including Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Obviously, with those facilities around us, it’s a lot of people in a confined space,” Schleder says. “COVID-19, and more recently, civil disturbances continue to be a focus, driving us to ensure our team is prepared for any and all possible situations.”

On his team are 40 security officers. He also has relationships with the Chicago Police and Northwestern’s University Police Departments.

While the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab does not offer emergency services, it is a healthcare facility where patients are recovering from serious injuries or conditions. “We are an open healthcare facility, and visitors want to see their loved ones who are receiving care,” he says. “COVID-19 has changed the way that happens, limiting our visitor policy. We provide tablets so that patients and family can connect virtually.”

COVID-19 concerns also affected the security team, Schleder notes. “Understandably, my team didn’t want to get sick. So I made sure to be transparent and communicative. We had information from infection control, facilities, executive leaders, nurse educators and spiritual care. For example, our facilities team spoke about the number of air exchanges within a patient room over a two-hour span. Nurse educators offered PPE training and fit testing. And spiritual care helped with meditation and breathing exercises to help team members relax before they began their workday. Any staff that went above and beyond received personalized thank you notes to their homes. That was well received.”

Schleder has only been in his role for three years, but he’s already changed the perception of the security department by staff and the C-suite. “In just three years, we’ve done a lot to build up our brand. Now, we’re viewed in a very positive light. We rebranded our department at the same time our organization was rebranding and moving into a new state-of-the-art facility. Because our organization sets the bar for rehabilitation, we wanted our team to reflect that same reputation. We changed our uniforms from navy blue police-style to three-piece charcoal suits. We removed contract security teams and became fully proprietary. This created more stability among the staff, as our officers are now seen as colleagues within the organization. We created a culture among the team that meshed with the organization’s culture. We took on a one-team mentality that says, ‘We’re all here together to make this work.’ We are not here for just safety and security, we’re here to provide comfort and support for everybody that comes into this building.”

As the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab grows, so does the need for more security technology. This year and into next, Schleder hopes to add more IP security cameras based on assessments that found some blind spots. He’s also in the process of adding a mass notification system. “We could have used a mass notification system to streamline communications during the civil disturbances that took place in the area earlier this year. Michigan Avenue, where many of the protests took place, is three blocks from us. It will be useful once it’s in place.”

  In his free time, Schleder likes to spend time with his family and friends, travel, and play sand volleyball on the beaches of Lake Michigan.