GAO explains why your building might not be safe

Monday - 8/9/2010, 9:08am EDT

Mark Goldstein, Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, GAO

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By Vyomika Jairam
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

Government watch dogs say they've uncovered new concerns that put the security of federal buildings into question ... again. The latest findings from the Government Accountability Office revisit issues with the Facility Security Committees.

Those committees are responsible for addressing security at individual federal facilities, but GAO says the committees have several weaknesses that haven't been addressed, even years after the agency first made recommendations to restructure the FSC system.

Every government building has a facility committee, which is comprised of the building tenants, Federal Protective Services representatives, and General Services Agency representatives. The committee's function is to decide how to improve security at individual buildings.

"The concerns that we've raised are that these committees frankly aren't very good or very efficient at doing a job that perhaps isn't even necessary," Mark Goldstein, director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at GAO, said.

In its initial 2009 report, the GAO outlined three primary issues surrounding the FSC structure:

First, FSCs have operated since 1995 without procedures that outline how they should operate or make decisions, or that establish accountability. Second, the tenant agency representatives to the FSC generally do not have any security knowledge or experience but are expected to make security decisions for their respective agencies. Third, many of the FSC tenant agency representatives also do not have the authority to commit their respective organizations to fund security countermeasures.

In addition, Goldstein said, some committee don't meet often or even regularly to reevaluate and consider security concerns and operating procedure changes.

"It's become a major concern that individual buildings are being protected in a way that isn't as effective or efficient as the government probably needs to be doing in this point in time," Goldstein said.

The first concern that the report raised, that there are limited operational guidelines or accountability for the FSCs to follow, can even result in the FSCs causing harm rather than preventing it, Goldstein explained. There is minimal security directives from the Department of Homeland Security that all agencies must follow, but the FSC structure allows for much of the specifications to be localized, the result of which is that there is no uniform practices across the government

"You have, from building-to-building across the federal spectrum, a very different approach to what can come into buildings or what level of security is even being allowed," Goldstein said.

FSCs are tasked with implementing and monitoring security guidelines and practices not just to prevent terrorism, but also crime, Goldstein explained.

"We uncovered instances in our reports in the past where people were stealing very large items, flat screens TVs, out of federal buildings, " Goldstein said. "But the security cameras weren't working so they were unable to identify the individual or individuals that had taken them."

This is the latest report in a line of recommendations that GAO has made to the Federal Protective Services regarding government facilities security, and Goldstein said that FPS has been responding to previous reports. Goldstein hopes that trend continues regarding the FSCs.

"There are still significant deficiencies that need improving and revamping," Goldstein said.