Calls grow for federalizing government building security

Published 16 April 2010

DHS’s Federal Protective Service (FPS) has a budget of about $1 billion, and employs 1,225 full-time workers and 15,000 contract security guards at more than 2,300 federal facilities nationwide; in fiscal 2009 the service obligated $659 million for guards, the single largest item in its budget; a GAO reports criticizes the work of many of the guards and the contracts which employ them, and lawmakers debate whether to federalize federal buildings security responsibilities

DHS should consider decreasing its reliance on contract guards at federal buildings, Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, (GAO), told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Goldstein, testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee, said that DHS’ Federal Protective Service (FPS) has failed repeatedly properly to manage its contract workforce and that federalizing security should now be an option. “We recommend that FPS identify other approaches to protecting federal buildings,” Goldstein said.

Government Executive’s Robert Brodsky writes that Wednesday’s hearing comes on the heels of a GAO report that noted undercover agents were able to slip fake guns, knives, and explosives past guards. Since July 2009, FPS conducted fifty-three penetration tests at federal facilities nationwide, according to the report. In more than 66 percent of those tests, guards did not identify the prohibited items, GAO said.

The GAO report noted, for example, that during a November 2009 check at a level IV facility — a high-security building with more than 450 employees — guards missed a phony bomb placed in an agent’s bag. Security spotted a gun and detained the undercover agent during a second test. “However, the FPS inspector was told to stand in a corner and was not handcuffed or searched as required,” the report said. “In addition, while all the guards were focusing on the individual with the fake gun, a second FPS inspector walked through the security checkpoint with two knives without being screened.”

GAO also found FPS failed to punish seven companies previously found to have expired certifications and training requirements. In fact, the agency exercised an option to extend the contracts of the seven firms and cited each of the companies for satisfactory or better service. Of 99 contract companies GAO assessed, 82 had received performance ratings of satisfactory, very good, or exceptional, the report said.

FPS director Gary Schenkel said in certain cases, firms have been assessed financial penalties. Many of the issues GAO cited did not rise to the level of contract termination, he said. The agency has made significant improvements in the performance of its contract and federal workforce, Schenkel added. FPS has increased the frequency of unannounced inspections, bolstered training and worked to ensure contractors are meeting certification requirements, he said. Earlier this week, DHS announced new security standards for all federal buildings.

While we believe we can effectively secure federal buildings with the current mix of highly trained federal staff and contract guards, we have not ruled out the possibility of expanding our federal workforce,” Schenkel testified.

Brodsky notes that FPS has a budget of about $1 billion, and employs 1,225 full-time workers and 15,000 contract security guards at more than 2,300 federal facilities nationwide. In fiscal 2009 the service obligated $659 million for guards, the single largest item in its budget.

Industry officials said federalizing security forces is not the answer. Rather, what was needed was better contractor training and oversight. “Federalizing contract security forces will not change the outcome of poor training,” said Stephen Amitay, federal legislative counsel for the National Association of Security Companies. “When making decisions about federalizing the force, one must look at the root causes of the current deficiencies. And one root cause is poor training administered by the FPS, not necessarily the recipient of the training.”

In a statement that echoed post-9/11 debates about federalizing airport security, former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin argued that security functions should be a fundamental government responsibility. Contractors, he said, have too much of a financial incentive to cut corners to maximize profits. He said, though, that the TSA experience should tell us that federalizing security functions, in and of itself, is not enough: Many of the early TSA screeners, it was later learned, were not properly vetted or trained.