Federal building security at risk due to lax training, oversight

Wednesday - 10/30/2013, 2:33pm EDT

Joe Kirschbaum, Acting Director for Homeland Security and Justice Issues,GAO

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Mark Goldstein, director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, GAO

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A new report from the Government Accountablity Office revealed a host of concerns regarding the security personnel who protect federal employees and contractors at their offices.

The report proved to be rich fodder for a hearing this morning by the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency.

The purpose of Wednesday's hearing was to determine what the Department of Homeland Security is doing to protect federal facilities and the steps it's taking to prevent incidents like the Navy Yard shootings from occurring in the future.

"While much of the security of this horrific event will rightly focus on how someone in [Navy Yard shooter] Aaron Alexis' mental state was able to pass a governmental background investigation and hold a security clearance, today's hearing will concentrate on the physical, preventable security measures that are currently in place for our federal facilities," Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said in his opening statement. "How do we control access to these facilities to both protect employees and public visitors? What physical security measures, if any, can be taken to prevent future tragedies?"

The Federal Protective Service is charged with protecting more than 9,000 federal facilities and 1.4 million occupants and visitors of those facilities. FPS is also responsible for securing more than 50 percent of the General Services Administration's owned or leased properties nationwide, or approximately 9,600 facilities.

"To accomplish its mission, FPS inspectors and contract protective security officers (PSOs) work in tandem to tend to the daily security needs at federal facilities and respond to threats against the facilities or government personnel working within them," FPS Director L. Eric Patterson told the subcommittee, adding that PSOs stop approximately 700,000 prohibited items from entering federal facilities annually.

According to the GAO report released today, FPS has many weaknesses with the oversight of its guard program.

All of the approximately 13,500 PSOs receive background checks to determine their fitness to working within the federal government. FPS partners with private contractors to make sure all PSOs receive the proper training, certification and qualification requirements set out in their contracts.

"FPS continues to lack effective management controls to ensure that all guards have met their certification and training requirements," Duncan said. "GAO has previously urged FPS to develop a management control system to document and verify training and reports submitted to Congress in 2010 and 2012. But FPS has yet to implement this recommendation. Without such a system, how can FPS know and ensure that its guard force is sufficiently trained?"

FPS contract guards not primary responders to Navy Yard shootings

The most shocking finding of the GAO report, according to Duncan, concerned FPS' response in active-shooter scenarios. Although FPS requires training of each of its guards in active-shooter situations, it's not clear the length of this training or how it is conducted. GAO reported that not all guards receive this training.

It's also unclear how exactly the guards are supposed to react to an active-shooter.

In the event of an active-shooter situation, a PSO's first responsibility is to notify his or her command center, where that information will be shared with FPS inspectors and local law enforcement. The PSO does this through land line and radio communications. It's up to the PSO then to determine what action he will take next.

"Our PSOs are trained to take action in emergency situations," Patterson said. "Because they're not federal or state law enforcement officials, the contractor is constrained by state law what he or his company can do in these situations. That's why we don't have what we call 'active-shooter training,' if you will, where our PSOs will go out and actively pursue an active shooter. However, if we come across a situation where that PSO is the only individual in that facility and has no reasonable expectation that law enforcement can respond in a reasonably quick manner, then that individual will more than likely take action to limit the damage of this active shooter."

On Sept. 16, federal and local law enforcement were the primary responders to the active shooter at the Navy Yard, despite the fact that PSOs were already on the scene as part of their daily duties. While PSOs maintained contact with the primary command center, they focused their efforts on ensuring that federal buildings nearby were secure during the incident. Later in the day, they provided K-9 units to help law enforcement agencies search the area for possible explosive devices.