Investigators warn of lax security at government buildings

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Guards at government buildings across the nation aren’t receiving proper training, federal investigators found, raising questions about their ability to safeguard federal employees and property.

Most do not receive training on how to respond to an active threat, such as a person with a gun, and some never were trained on how to use the X-ray scanning machines ubiquitous in government buildings, according to a report this week by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog arm.

“Recent incidents at federal facilities demonstrate their continued vulnerability to attacks or other acts of violence,” the GAO said, a reference to the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in September that killed a dozen people.

Investigators said it’s not the first time the Federal Protective Services, a Homeland Security Department office in charge of safeguarding government buildings across the country, has been criticized for its handling of safety. Since 2008, the GAO has reported repeatedly that the agency does not have good security training controls for the roughly 13,500 guards in its employ spread out over 9,600 facilities.

“Ensuring the training, equipment, and preparedness of federal law enforcement officers and armed contract security guards is central to providing for the security of the facilities safeguarded by the Federal Protective Service,” said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat.

The Senate held a hearing on the issue this week, and the House Committee on Homeland Security held a similar subcommittee hearing Oct. 30.

Homeland Security officials told the GAO they are working to fix any problems with agency oversight and to ensure all federal buildings are secure, and an FPS spokesman said the agency was focusing in particular on the private security personnel.

FPS has reviewed the current training provided to contracted [private security guards] regarding active-shooter incidents, and in collaboration with security companies, is determining if additional enhanced training is necessary,” said FPS spokesman Scott McConnell. He said the agency is “also working closely with all contracted security companies to ensure that [private guards] receive the appropriate screening training and skills they require to carry out their duties.”

Some government properties have different kinds of protection. Military facilities such as the Washington Navy Yard are patrolled by members of the military, park security is cared for by members of the National Park Service, the White House is guarded by the Secret Service, and Congress is kept safe by the U.S. Capitol Police.

But for most other government buildings — including many agency headquarters in the District — protection is provided by private security contractors.

Yet many of the guards are unprepared for emergency situations, such as a gunman trying to kill or harm people in the building. FPS officials told investigators that this training was a “small portion” of a two-hour class on special situations that could arise.

Security guards are not trained, nor do they often have legal authority, to search a building for a gunman, roles left up to law enforcement personnel. Instead, guard training usually focuses on securing a particular area and helping safeguard and evacuate employees present.

Investigators also found that many guards were not properly trained on how to operate X-ray screening machines at entrances to government buildings. One private company told the GAO that 38 percent of its personnel hadn’t received training, while another said 26 percent had not.

“Consequently, some guards deployed to federal facilities may be using X-ray and magnetometer equipment that they are not qualified to use — thus raising questions about the ability of some guards to execute a primary responsibility to properly screen access control points at federal facilities,” the GAO said.

David Wright, a 27-year veteran with FPS, said the government needs to fix the problem.

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