A look at the sorry state of the Federal Protective Service

The Federal Protective Service inspires such little confidence in its ability to protect 9,000 federal buildings that employees who work in them might want to telecommute.

Testimony at Wednesday’s hearing by the House Homeland Security subcommittee on cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and security technologies was an almost ritualistic look at the sorry state of an agency charged with protecting facilities that more than 1 million workers and visitors use every day.

It has become ritualistic because Congress has gone over these issues so many times before — with numerous hearings and Government Accountability Office reports — that participants know their roles by rote. The GAO documents FPS problems. FPS says it’s making efforts to improve. Lawmakers express exasperation.

Like some other rituals, the hearings and reports also can convey a certain hope that things will get better.

“And for a minute, I believed,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), recalling promises of reform from his days chairing the full committee.

“Then, in February 2011, I was jarred back into the reality of FPS.”

That’s when a private security guard on contract to the agency in Detroit found a bag outside the McNamara Federal Building. He took it inside to the lost and found. The bag contained a bomb, which was not discovered for three weeks. Fortunately, it did not explode, no thanks to the guards whose job is to protect the building.

Thompson said the incident illustrates the agency’s “fundamental ineptitude at managing contracts.” The current chairman, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), said the case demonstrates “how not to respond to suspicious packages” as he questioned the agency’s ability to protect federal buildings.

Everyone agrees that the private guards need better training. Although guarding federal facilities could be considered inherently governmental work, and therefore work that federal employees should do, the more than 13,000 guards are employed by private companies under contract to FPS. The agency does employ about 900 federal law enforcement officers, who supervise the private-sector workers.

If the guards were federal employees, their training would be consistent. With 130 private security contractors each providing training to their own employees, consistency is not the case.

FPS Director Leonard E. Patterson said at the hearing that one of his agency’s problems is “our ability to ensure the training is being delivered in an acceptable manner,” adding, ominously, that the agency “can’t ensure that a certain standard level” of training has been accomplished for all the guards.

Steve Amitay, legislative counsel of the National Association of Security Companies, which represents private security firms contracting with FPS, agreed that there is “a lack of consistency” in training, even to the point of causing some guards “to be disqualified where they might not be elsewhere in the country.”

One program to help FPS keep track of guard training, among other things, has been an expensive failure. The $41 million Risk Assessment Management Program “was not cost-effective and has not fulfilled its original goals,” Patterson said.

Poor management is yet another problem Lungren identified, although committee members didn’t blame Patterson, who has been director since September, for the agency’s litany of issues. FPS has had three parent agencies in recent years, leading Lungren to say that “it is extremely difficult to develop and implement the policies and procedures necessary to effectively secure federal buildings when there is little continuity in leadership and structure within FPS.”

Among the problems GAO found:

l  Inadequate workforce planning means FPS can’t identify “gaps in workforce needs.”

l  Of 28 GAO recommendations made since 2008, none has been fully implemented, although work is being done on 21 of them.

l  The current FPS funding scheme of getting fees from tenant agencies consistently underfunds the service.

l A decreasing emphasis on FPS patrols means “there is an increased potential for illegal entry and other criminal activity.”

David L. Wright, an FPS officer who is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 918, cited figures indicating a drop in the number of federally employed law enforcement FPS officers per building from 2003 to 2010. He left the committee with this disturbing thought: “The offenses still happen but the perpetrator is not caught.”

Wright said in his written statement: “The sole Federal agency charged with the critical mission of protecting thousands of federal buildings and millions of people from these terrorist and criminal attacks is faced with potential failure that if not immediately remedied by the Congress, will likely result in tragic loss of life.

“If we are to succeed in preventing the next attack, immediate legislative action to reform the Federal Protective Service is required now!”

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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