Sept. 26, 2019

Despite jump in calls for service, officials say Saskatoon hospitals still safe

Leigh Blais is a big guy.

He has a large build and looks like a person you wouldn't want to mess with but he says he doesn't feel safe when visiting St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon.

"I'm big and I'm trained and there's more than enough times when you're here that there's a gang element, there's people that you know have weapons. You can tell," Blais said.

"They carry on in the area and you have to be careful. So, I can't imagine what it would be like for an elderly person or a woman."

Blais said there have been times when he had to walk his mother into the hospital to ensure she feels safe, and he has heard people complain about people using the hospital for non-hospital related business.

He's not alone in his concerns.

Megan Yannacoulias said she doesn't feel safe at the hospital either.

"Going in, you know staff have been held up and robbed," she said.

"I've got things I've got to carry in for my children, so I'm kind of watching my personal items very hard, because there's apparently a lot of theft going on.

"Generally, it just doesn't feel like a very welcoming environment."

Police being called to hospitals more often

The number of police calls for service from all three city hospitals has jumped since 2014.

City police responded to 982 calls from the hospitals that year, a number that increased by 28 per cent to 1,261 in 2018. There have been 763 calls so far this year. 

Police have received 6,470 calls for service from the institutions over about four years, with Royal University Hospital being the largest source at 3,048 calls, followed by St. Paul's Hospital with 2,781 calls and City Hospital coming in at the bottom with just 641 calls.

More recently, St. Paul's has become the largest source of calls, surpassing Royal University Hospital for the last two years.

Crime has been an ongoing issue at St. Paul's for years.

Last weekend, a man was critically injured and two people were charged with aggravated assault after an alleged stabbing on the street in front of the hospital. He remains in critical condition.

On July 21, a nurse on her way to work was the victim of daylight robbery by a man with a knife.

And in March, a man was shot on the street outside of St. Paul's Hospital, then walked into the hospital for treatment.

Patients started reporting thefts at the hospital in 2016, with the issue increasing to the point where uniformed police officers were asked to patrol the hospital in 2018 to deal with increasing thefts and drug activity.

Hospitals heavy-traffic zones

Supt. Randy Huisman of the Saskatoon Police Service said there are multiple of reasons behind the rising number of calls to police. By law, police have to be called anytime a person comes into the hospital with a stab or gunshot wound.

"Hospitals are a safe place," he said. "[But] there's a lot of people coming and going visiting patients in and out, so they tend to be an area where criminals may want to target individuals." 

Huisman said the prevalence of crystal meth on Saskatoon streets is also a factor.

"People on crystal meth are very desperate to be able to liquidate items or get money for their next batch of drugs, and so that's where we see spikes in property crime and that kind of thing."

Administration at St. Paul's acknowledged an issue with safety at the facility in a Sept. 12 letter sent to staff, physicians, volunteers and tenants. 

The letter, signed by St. Paul's executive director Karen Barber, said crime and illegal activity should be a "never event" in and around the hospital.

"Our goal would be zero incidents of violence and harm," it reads. "To achieve this, we need to understand the issues, what to do and how to de-escalate situations and a multi-faceted approach that includes safety and security initiatives."

In an interview with CBC, Barber said the three-page letter was sent to staff as a result of a spike in violent crime around the hospital in recent months.

Big changes could be coming to St. Paul's entrance

The letter acknowledges some of the issues facing the neighbourhood where St. Paul's is located, including homelessness, poverty, addiction and drug use that are "symptoms of larger societal issues and trauma that has sometimes reverberated through generations." 

The letter provides insight into steps the hospital is taking to improve security around the facility. This includes safety meetings held between community stakeholders, the hospital and police, and ensuring staff know how to contact security, which is on site 24/7.

There are also staff education sessions by the Saskatoon Police Service's Guns and Gangs Unit on what to do during a robbery.

Hospital administrators plan to consult an architect and stakeholders to redesign the front grounds and entry area of the facility, with safety a top priority for the redesign, alongside traffic flow, access and convenience for patients.

Currently, the entrance and front grounds are open to the public and people can come and go as they please during the day, even if they're not a staff member or patient at the hospital.

Barber said the redesign outlined in the letter could be a large, multi-year project that would see the front of the hospital getting a full revamp, including both the outside grounds and the interior. 

She said it's concerning that some people don't feel safe at the hospital.

"That's why safety and security has been a priority for us over the past number of years and we certainly haven't stepped back our game, we've stepped it up."

She says the facility regularly meets with stakeholders, community members and police to come up with solutions to make St. Paul's a safer place. She said collaboration is critical.

"Together we're stronger," she said.

Russ Laidlaw, director of protective services and health emergency management with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said security services are seeing more instances of weapons in hospitals, but it's still rare. He said they're working to educate people to leave weapons at home. 

"They're going to get taken away from them, so they might as well leave them at home, because the hospital is not the type of place for those articles."

Nurses union says SHA working to address safety issues

Though calls for service have been rising at hospitals in the city, Tracy Zambory, the president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, says Saskatoon's hospitals are secure places to work, and there hasn't been a big increase in members coming forward with concerns. 

Zambory said the environment in hospitals is changing and becoming more challenging for frontline staff.

"Are hospitals safe? Yes, they're safe. Could they be safer? Absolutely," she said. 

Zambory said she believes the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the Ministry of Health are working to address safety issues, but there needs to be a federal and provincial strategy around mental health.

She said people who come into hospitals under the influence of drugs can become a safety issue.

"They are having some kind of a psychotic break and can become violent," she said.  "That's the reality. I don't know if we want to call it a new reality — it's just a reality."

Zambory said she believes a redesign of the entrance could help safety. 

Family members of Richard Fernuk, who was killed after leaving St. Paul's on Aug. 2, said if the hospital is informing staff about safety issues, the hospital should be working to make the public aware as well. 

"I would wonder, when people are visiting the hospital, how are they made aware of the neighborhood that they're in," she said. "And if you're being discharged, especially say in the middle of the night, is someone being spoken to, just to give them a good idea of what the neighborhood might be like at say three in the morning, if you were leaving the hospital?"

A statement from the SHA said St. Paul's works closely with the Saskatoon police to communicate to the public about criminal activity in the city, including the neighbourhood St. Paul's is located.

Barber said hospital administrators wants people to know St. Paul's is taking safety issues seriously.

"We want to be welcoming and safe and, to that end, we're working closely with community. We're working with staff. And we're coming up with some solutions, and problem-solving together, to continue to make this a welcoming and safe place."


(Photo - Mordan Modjeski, CBC)