Just Ask!

Dear Just Ask:
Consider the following incident. It is 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, and I am in my lab working. A man wearing an NIH I.D. badge displayed prominently from a necklace passes me in the hall. I nod to him, and return to my work. Five minutes later, the man - who turns out to be an NIH health physicist - approaches me and admonishes me for "not challenging him."

What defines an appropriate "challenge?" If I did not adequately "challenge," my reasons for not doing so were that:

  1. He had an NIH I.D. badge prominently displayed,
  2. I judged him, by his appearance, to be a person who had some business being in the lab,
  3. My natural instinct is to be courteous, not confrontational, and
  4. He was a big guy - maybe a foot taller and at least 50 pounds heavier than me. I am 5 foot 2 inches tall.

Practically speaking, I am not sure how to react to any situation - especially an adverse one - that a stranger might present. I recognize that we all must contribute to NIH security. However, might trying to force NIH staff to provocatively encounter strangers end up endangering the staff themselves - most of whom are untrained in policing procedures or even self-defense?

- Kuan-Teh Jeang, NIAID

Dear K.T.:

Celia Hooper

Celia Hooper
Everyone around here - especially those of us who are on the short side - agrees that you have raised a very important question: what constitutes an appropriate "challenge" of interlopers?

Debbie Thomson, acting chief of the Crime Prevention Branch of NIH's Division of Public Safety, suggests approaching strangers and asking them, "May I help you?" She says that's usually enough to constitute a reasonable challenge without making either the challenger or the person being challenged feel uncomfortable. If you spot someone who is behaving suspiciously or who intimidates you in any way, call security - 115 - immediately and leave the challenging to NIH police. When in doubt, Thomson says it's always better to err on the side of caution and call the police.

NIH's Radiation Safety Officer, Bob Zoon, adds that scrutiny by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been the driving force behind some changes in the very open atmosphere that once pervaded NIH labs. "There is such trust here that someone whom no one knows could walk all around a lab, possibly even grab stuff out of a fridge and disappear - and no one would say anything to them. That's what the NRC really has a problem with," says Zoon, acknowledging that the policy of asking NIH staff to challenge strangers treads a very fine line. His office wants to heighten the NIH staff's awareness of security but does not want or expect such challenges to be confrontational or rude, especially if they involve legitimate visitors, health physicists, or even NRC inspectors. Although it isn't reasonable to expect NIH staff members to challenge every stranger in a public corridor, particularly in the Clinical Center or in non-lab areas such as Building 1 or 31, Zoon says that every unescorted stranger in a lab - especially in labs with restricted access or where radionuclides are used - should be gently challenged, even if they have an NIH I.D. Zoon recommends challenging with one of these lines: "I'm sorry, but I don't recognize you. Can I help you?" or "Are you visiting someone in the lab?" If a stranger turns out to be a visitor who is truly lost, he or she should be escorted out of the restricted area and directed to the correct destination. To help researchers grow accustomed to the practice of challenging strangers, Zoon has asked health physicists to inspect labs outside their assigned areas. "The idea is to assure NRC that unauthorized people do not have access to radioactive materials," he says, "You cannot just ignore someone that you do not know who is wandering around where they shouldn't be."

- C.H.

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