Is Your Office Safe and Secure? The GAO Takes a Look

The 2013 shooting at the Navy Yard. The 2010 attack on the IRS building in Texas. The September 11th attacks. All of these disasters took place on federal property.

Work should be safe. It’s that simple. But federal buildings are often the target of attacks. So how can government do a better job of protecting not just its physical space, but the people too? The Government Accountability Office looks at workplace safety in their new report, “Protecting Federal Facilities Remains a Challenge.”

One of the authors of the report is Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at GAO. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the government made a lot of changes to workplaces safety conditions after September 11th, 2001, but that there are still issues.

The agency tasked with protected buildings is the Federal Protective Service. Per the GAO’s report, the FPS continues to face challenges ensuring that contract guards have been properly trained and certified before being deployed to federal facilities around the country.

An official from one of FPS’s contract guard companies stated that 133 (about 38 percent) of its approximately 350 guards have never received screener training. As a result, guards deployed to federal facilities may be using X-ray and magnetometer equipment that they are not qualified to operate, raising questions about their ability to fulfill the responsibility of screening access control points at federal facilities.

Additionally, 23 percent of the 276 contract guard files GAO reviewed did not have required training and certification documentation. For example, some files were missing items such as documentation of screener training, CPR certifications, and firearms qualifications.

“We remain concerned today that these facilities might not be as safe as they could be if the Federal Protective Service did a better job of protecting them,” said Goldstein.

Finding the right level of protection can be difficult – you don’t want federal buildings to become fortresses where government is separated from the citizens it serves. “There has to be a balance between access and security,” said Goldstein. “These are the public’s buildings. Many of them are beautiful buildings that require people to go in to do business with the government. So there has to be a balance, and it has to be done in a way that doesn’t preclude people from coming into public buildings, but also ensures that everyone is secure while they’re there.”

In its new report, the GAO provided 31 recommendations to the FPS on how to improve operations – some of which are more critical than others:

  • Take immediate steps to determine which guards have not had screener or active-shooter scenario training and provide it to them and, as part of developing a national lesson plan, decide how and how often these trainings will be provided in the future.

  • Require that contract guard companies’ instructors be certified to teach basic and refresher training courses to guards and evaluate whether a standardized instructor certification process should be implemented.

  • Develop and implement procedures for monthly guard-file reviews to ensure consistency in selecting files and verifying the results.

  • Federal Protective Service: Actions Needed to Assess Risk and Better Manage Contract Guards at Federal Facilities, GAO-12-739, August 2012 Incorporate NIPP’s risk management framework—specifically in calculating risk to include threat, vulnerability, and consequence information—in any permanent risk assessment tool.

  • Coordinate with GSA and other federal tenant agencies to reduce any unnecessary duplication in security assessments of facilities under the custody and control of GSA.

“Some of these issues could have solved years ago if they had used more commercially available products to manage the guard programs, or to do risk assessments,” said Goldstein.

But Goldstein does believe the agency is making progress. “I think that they have a management team in place today that is committed to making changes and improving the security of public property. But they still rely on the guard companies to tell them that all of their guards are qualified, certified and qualified to be standing post. They very far behind in doing risk assessments of public buildings, and therefore, don’t really have a good sense of how to prioritize counter measures and limited budget resources to those parts of the building’s portfolio that need them most. They are making some progress, but they do have a lot more to go.”

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