Private security guards ill-equipped for federal workplace shooting situations

Wednesday - 12/18/2013, 4:32am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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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.