The agency tasked with securing federal buildings across the country has been booted by the Homeland Security Department from overseeing security at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.
The Federal Protective Service will no longer coordinate security at DHS headquarters on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest D.C. according to a May 1 memo from the agency’s chief security officer to the undersecretary for management. The memo was brought to light Wednesday by members of a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee at a hearing on the security of federal buildings.
Since 2003, FPS — an agency within DHS — has been tasked with safeguarding some 9,600 federally owned and leased facilities nationwide. The agency is staffed by about 1,000 federal law-enforcement officials and more than 13,000 private security guards.
But the agency has long been plagued by concerns over lax oversight and uneven performance.
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Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, cited the DHS memo as a possible sign that “confidence in FPS may be eroding” from within DHS.
FPS Director L. Eric Patterson, who has led the agency since 2010, disputed that assessment.
“To my knowledge, this was not an issue of performance, and I do not believe that the department has lost confidence in the Federal Protective Service,” he testified. “I believe this was an issue of efficiency and unity of command.”
Private security guards employed by FPS will continue to provide security at DHS headquarters, he said, although FPS will no longer be responsible for the day-to-day management of them.
Still, contractor guards and FPS will remain “a robust presence at the facility as we always have,” Patterson said. “So, this is really about the contract management, not about losing confidence in our ability to provide security and law-enforcement support.”
Members of committee, however, seized on the news to point to the persistent management challenges the agency has faced in securing federal facilities.
Are contract guards properly trained?
The Government Accountability Office has documented serious, persistent deficiencies in the agency’s handling of building security over the past several years.
For example, it’s unclear how effectively the agency’s largely contractor workforce has been trained, because the agency doesn’t do a very good job keeping track, Mark Goldstein, GAO’s director of physical infrastructure, testified.
For example, late last year, GAO reported that at least five contractor companies said their guards had not received training for how to respond to active-shooter situations.
Another company told GAO more than a third of its workforce had never received training on how to conduct security screenings, including how to properly use X-ray equipment and metal detectors, he added.
“We do have concerns that remain and that have remained for a number of years now about the possibility of bombs and other kinds of weapons getting into federal facilities because there is an assurance that the person standing guard and responsible for putting things through a magnetometer and an X-ray machine has the adequate training to prevent something from coming through that shouldn’t,” he testified.
At this point, it’s almost impossible to know how many contractor guards — called private security officers, by FPS — have undergone training in certain areas, because the agency lacks a reliable system for tracking and maintaining that information.
Several years ago when GAO examined the issue, it found about 1,500 contract guards that lacked adequate training. That number has likely gone down, Goldstein said, but in talking with contractor companies across the country, “pockets” of untrained guards remain.
Patterson, the FPS director, said the agency is “working aggressively” with the National Association of Security Companies — a private trade association — to develop a nationwide training curriculum, including guidance for responding to active-shooter situations.
GAO says building reviews lacking
Along with its day-to-day duties securing federal facilities, FPS is also tasked with conducting risk-assessments of federally owned and leased buildings and recommending the measures that should be taken to secure them.
The problem, according to GAO, is that FPS currently lacks the ability to do so “in a manner consistent with federal standards,” Goldstein said. Meanwhile, a backlog of uncompleted security reviews continue to pile up.
Since the agency pulled the plug on its massive, multimillion-dollar Risk Assessment and Management Program in 2012, FPS has been relying on an interim tool it calls the Modified Infrastructure Survey Tool, or MIST, to review building security.
However, Goldstein said three out of the four risk-management experts queried by auditors agreed that MIST would not be an effective tool because it fails to take into account the consequences or potential losses of an adverse event affecting a federal facility.
That results in “kind of a cookie-cutter approach,” Goldstein said. “There is no way that FPS is able to examine threats, vulnerabilities and consequences across its portfolio to target resources best across facilities. It looks at each facility in a stovepiped kind of way and, therefore, it becomes quite difficult to better provide resources, which as we all know, are quite limited.”
Further, due to poor record-keeping, “it’s not possible to say” how many facilities are overdue for risk assessments or when the last such review occurred, Goldstein said. However, it’s clear a sizable backlog has built up, he said.
“FPS is working to reduce that backlog and to hopefully move forward with new (reviews) so that they can be become up to date, but they’re not at that place today,” he testified.
Patterson said the current risk-assessment tool is working and that it’s on track to complete assessments of high-security buildings by end of the year. The agency is testing a second-generation MIST tool that will feature several improvements. Implementation will begin this fall, he said.
Union: Agency understaffed
David Wright, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 918, told the panel buildings security reviews have also suffered because of understaffing at the agency. Wright, who works as an FPS inspector, said the organization is top-heavy and more employees need to be deployed to the field.
All told, more than 21 percent of staff is assigned to headquarters staff, “which robs federal buildings of necessary security,” Wright testified.
Meanwhile, he said, employees in the field struggle to perform all their duties. Most inspectors are assigned to oversee an average of nearly two dozen buildings and are responsible for conducting security assessments, overseeing contractors and a host of other duties.
“How do inspectors accomplish all their tasks? They don’t, because there are simply not enough of them,” Wright said.