Senate panel moves to strengthen Federal Protective Service

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 11:04 PM

Fed up with a rash of complaints about the Federal Protective Service, a Senate committee on Wednesday approved legislation designed to strengthen the agency charged with protecting 9,000 federal buildings.

The legislation would increase agency staffing by 500 positions over four years, with most of those assigned to law enforcement. Support and administrative personnel hired through the measure would be used to provide increased oversight of FPS contract guards.

The FPS has about 1,200 full-time employees and 15,000 contract guards. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly reported serious problems with the agency's ability to secure government facilities.

The problems are so serious that the agency's "mission is now in grave peril," Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said during the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting.

"The GAO found a seriously dysfunctional agency that lacked much, if any, focus or strategy for accomplishing its mission," he said in a prepared statement. "GAO investigators found guards sleeping on the job, and investigators successfully smuggled bomb-making ingredients past security to build an explosive device and move about the building undetected. GAO concluded that contract guards lacked adequate training, FPS personnel suffered from low morale, oversight of the contract guards was poor, and many of the standards that guide federal building security and guard behavior were outdated."

The bill, which passed on a unanimous voice vote, would grant FPS officers retirement benefits similar to other federal law enforcement personnel. It does not federalize the contractors.

Contract guards, however, presumably would become more professional because of provisions in the legislation. Minimum initial training requirements would be doubled, to at least 80 hours, and the amount of training provided directly by FPS or monitored by the agency would increase to 25 percent, from 10 percent.

The legislation now goes to the full Senate. The House has not acted on the matter. The FPS did not respond to a request for comment.

One upsetting finding by GAO was that its investigators were able to sneak bomb materials undetected into every one of 10 selected high-security federal facilities. The legislation would more than double the number of FPS canine explosives teams and authorize a pilot program to test advanced imaging technology - similar to that used by airport screeners - at three federal facilities.

Citing GAO and Department of Homeland Security inspector general reports, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the committee's ranking Republican, noted "pervasive security gaps, lax oversight, inadequate training and systemic operational flaws" and called the FPS "a disaster waiting to happen."

She made her point by listing examples from the investigations that she said paint "a dangerous picture":

l "A majority of FPS contract guards reviewed by GAO lacked mandatory training. Investigators found some FPS contract guards had not been trained to operate metal detectors and X-ray equipment. Others had no CPR, first-aid or firearms training. All told, GAO found that 62 percent of the FPS contract guards reviewed lacked valid certifications in one or more of these areas.

l "The FPS failed to enforce rules governing guard posts and failed to inspect these posts after regular business hours. When GAO investigators conducted these inspections, they found some guards asleep.

l "GAO found that in more than half of the 53 security checks FPS conducted, guards failed to identify concealed guns and knives.

l "GAO revealed that an inattentive guard allowed a baby to be run through a building's X-ray machine. Though he was fired, he incredibly won a lawsuit against the FPS because the agency couldn't document that he had received the required training."

In addition to Lieberman and Collins, sponsors of the legislation include Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), the federal workforce subcommittee's chairman and ranking Republican member, respectively.

The bill generated no debate during the meeting. Sen. Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.) asked whether the FPS would provide security to members of Congress. The answer was no.

Along with strong bipartisan support, the bill has the backing of organized labor.

"This legislation goes a long way toward rectifying the Federal Protective Service's most serious management and personnel problems," said David Wright, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 918, which represents FPS employees nationwide.

In a letter to Lieberman and Collins on Tuesday, Wright said the agency had "suffered from chronic [under-funding], reductions in personnel and a general inability to perform its mission."

In August, the GAO reported that the FPS had taken steps to improve its oversight of contract guards, including an increase in guard inspections. The agency has implemented a national requirement for guard inspections.

The FPS also is increasing X-ray and magnetometer training for guards and expects all of them to be trained by the end of this year, the GAO reported.

Despite these changes, the GAO said "guards were continuing to neglect or inadequately perform their assigned duties."

The reports left senators exasperated.

"The agency remains troubled," Lieberman said before the vote, "and needs help to keep it from failing."

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