Private security guards ill-equipped for federal workplace shooting situations

Audits find contract security personnel, which make up the vast majority of the Federal Protective Service's workforce, receive no meaningful training on how to...

The government’s lead agency for providing security services at federal office buildings continues to struggle to provide training to its huge force of contract security guards, according to the Government Accountability Office, the agency’s union and the private security industry.

The topic of federal real property management has been on GAO’s high risk list for 10 years now, and the watchdog says the challenge of securing federal buildings is one major reason why.

GAO’s most recent audit work found the front-line contract security personnel, who guard most civilian agency offices, receive virtually no training on active shooter situations, and an estimated 38 percent have never had formal training on the X-ray and metal detection equipment they use every day.

“It was a wide variety of issues,” said Mark Goldstein, the director for physical infrastructure issues at GAO. “Not just the magnetometer and the active shooter training, but we found 23 percent of files we reviewed contained no documentation for required training and certification in a variety areas. This could be firearms training, drug testing, no indication that FPS had monitored firearms qualifications in 68 of the files we reviewed. It’s across the spectrum of the kinds of certifications guards need.”

In 2009, undercover GAO employees tried to sneak bomb-making materials into 10 federal buildings across the country; they managed to make it thorough security with the contraband in all the locations.

Goldstein told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday that the Federal Protective Service has made “uneven” progress in training its contract personnel since then.

More training to spot weapons

FPS is heavily reliant on contractors. It is responsible for the security of around 9,000 federal facilities. But since its budget can only accommodate about 1,000 sworn federal law enforcement officers, it depends on 13,000 contractors to staff security checkpoints, while its own officers conduct patrols, respond to calls for service and oversee the contractors.

With regard to the weapons detection equipment, FPS now has a plan in place to boost its own training requirements for contract guards to 16 hours of initial training and an eight-hour annual refresher course.

The private security industry supports those measures, said Stephen Amitay, the executive director of the National Association of Security Companies. But it’s far from clear FPS will be able to carry them out.

“The delivery of this training has been a problem, and it has been slow getting it out,” Amitay said. “And I think FPS realizes that the stretched FPS inspectors really should not be doing training. You know, that shouldn’t be their mission. They want to turn it over to certified contract security instructors, and we think that’s a great idea. That will allow for more cost-efficient and faster training.”

Amitay said FPS also has a long way to go in training contractors to respond to armed attackers.

According to GAO, contractors are supposed to get 120 hours of overall training before they’re certified to work in federal buildings. Two hours of that training is dedicated to “special events,” and only a fraction of that two hour period is dedicated to active shooter situations.

“Other agencies are well ahead of FPS in terms of training their contract security officers to respond to active shooter incidents,” Amitay said. “I mean, I’ve talked with several contractors, and with their instructions and post orders, there really is some confusion for PSOs as to what they can do in an active shooter situation. When you’re faced with an active shooter and a loss of life, you can engage him. But, are they able to be more aggressive in terms of maybe detecting an active shooter? For a person who comes in who’s being really suspicious, can they kind of get into the guy’s face and see what he’s doing?”

Goldstein put a finer point on the confusion about contractor authorities.

“We’ve interviewed dozens and dozens of contract guards over the last decade, all of whom have felt that they don’t have clarity on what their roles and responsibilities are,” he said. “And most have told us over the years that their companies have all but said, ‘Don’t you ever pull out your gun. Don’t you ever do anything with it.'”

Unclear legal authority

FPS says it tells its contract guards that if they encounter an active shooter, they should engage him or her, with deadly force if necessary. But the agency agreed there’s a lack of clarity about those contractors’ legal authority.

Since security guards are not federal law enforcement officers, their police powers generally are governed by the state and local laws at the location of a given federal facility. And in most places, that means they have no more legal authority than an average citizen.

“Really, we are doing due diligence in pursuing this matter,” said Eric Patterson, the director of the Federal Protective Service. “We are working aggressively with the vendors, one, to look at what authorities the states entitle him to relative to engagement. We’re also looking within the department at what legal authorities we could render to these folks from the federal sector. I’ve also spent a lot of time engaging with the federal executive boards across the country, looking at how can we provide additional training to those folks in the facility as to how to respond to an active shooter. How do we get people out of harm’s way when they recognize that there’s an event in progress? We are taking this very seriously. It may not come across that way in some of the testimony that we’re providing, but I can tell you that we’re spending a lot of time with our contractors, a lot of time with legal, to find out, what’s the ground that we can take? Because ultimately we have to figure out who’s going to bear the cost of this. And how can we do this in fundamentally a smart way, effective way, efficient way, but still provide the same result or similar result of protecting the folks in those facilities?”

Besides handling day-to-day security, FPS also is tasked with conducting risk assessments at federal facilities and recommending countermeasures to prevent attacks.

But GAO says the process it uses is inadequate, because it doesn’t include any means to measure the consequences to the nation or an agency’s mission if a particular facility were to be lost to a terrorist attack or even a natural disaster.

“Instead of conducting risk assessments, FPS is using an interim vulnerability assessment tool referred to as the modified infrastructure survey tool (MIST) to assess federal facilities until it develops a longer term solution. However, MIST does not assess the consequence, the level, duration and nature of potential loss resulting from an undesirable event,” Goldstein said. “Risk assessment experts GAO spoke with generally agreed that a tool that does not estimate consequence does not allow an agency to fully assess its risks. Thus, FPS has limited knowledge of risks based at about 9,600 federal facilities around the country.”

Frustrating, inefficient, wasteful

But even if FPS were doing a perfect job of assessing the risks to federal facilities, it has no legal authority to implement new security measures to address those problems.

Nor does the Interagency Security Committee, a working group of agency chief security officers that meets regularly to study trends in physical security and promulgate governmentwide standards.

Instead, decisions dealing with security measures at any given building fall to local panels of agency officials called Facility Security Committees. And that’s a problem, said David Wright, the president of the union that represents FPS officers. He, Goldstein and GAO all say those committees usually have no expertise in security matters.

“The frustrating, inefficient and outright wasteful bureaucratic system of implementing physical security countermeasures through a flawed facility security assessment process and implementation by facility security committees who have to divert their mission funding in order to reduce risk is eye candy, and not true security,” Wright said. “Security in the Dirksen Senate Office Building is not based on an individual Senate office’s ability to pay. Why should other major federal facilities be different?”


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