The unarmed security guards who patrol many District office buildings are not required to have any training and can begin work even before they have security clearances, which may leave them ill-prepared to deal with a terrorist attack or other major incident, supporters of a mandatory training law said yesterday.
A bill introduced in the D.C. Council for the second year by Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) would require that all security officers in the District receive 40 hours of training before starting work.
Private guards who carry weapons are trained and licensed by the local police, and they are typically assigned to federal buildings. Officials from the union that represents security officers said training should be extended to all members of the trade, particularly in Washington, where concern over possible terrorist violence has been acute.
"At D.C. commercial office buildings, many of which are just blocks, or less, away from high-profile federal buildings, no training requirements are in place for security officers," Valarie Long, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 82, said at a public hearing held yesterday by Graham and fellow Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). "Security officers work hard and want to do a better job. The problem is that they are often not given the tools they need."
But building owners yesterday said the bill is unnecessary because most security companies already train their employees.
"Due to their contractual obligations with our members, or their own internal standards, security firms already have stringent employment standards," said Harold F. Nelson, vice president and director of operations for Carr Real Estate Services Inc. and immediate past president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. Nelson said the association wants the Council to "first ascertain whether in fact a problem exists."
Bill Whitmore, president and chief executive of AlliedBarton Security Services, said the company provides several extensive training and certification programs for its guards. He said he is not against legislation that would mandate training, but is concerned a locality might not provide the proper kind of training, or would only train and not test and certify the workers.
"New York state has very specific requirements on training of security officers. We run our employees through that training," he said. "However, I think any legislation is good because if there are companies that aren't training properly or providing comparable training, this would help raise the bar there."
Virginia is one of six states that mandates training for security guards, requiring 16 hours of preparation along with refresher courses. Maryland requires no training.
Along with advance training, the D.C. legislation would require an annual refresher course, whistle-blower protection for guards who report unsafe conditions, a fine for security companies that don't adhere to the new requirements, and an increase in the amount of insurance security companies need to do business in the District from $25,000 to $100,000.
The training would include evacuation and first-aid procedures, customer service, and how to interact with tourists. It would also train officers in terrorism prevention, including how to deal with unattended packages and unknown substances.
Local security officers said they support the bill because it would raise standards and therefore raise wages and morale as well, while lowering turnover.
"We all want to do our job well. . . . The problem is we're not given the tools we need," said Constance Ferguson, a security officer at 1730 Pennsylvania Ave. She said she paid $250 herself for extra training, hoping to move up in the company or find a job that will pay her more than the $9.50 an hour she earns now.
The legislation would create "a standard across the city that you can count on," said Cynthia Kain, a spokeswoman with the SEIU, which is trying to organize the area's security officers. "For the small companies that don't have the training capacity another training company might have, it equalizes the training across the board."
"This is an effort to correct what I think is a major problem," Graham said in an interview. "As much money and time we have spent on terrorism, we do not have the right level of security in our buildings, and it's not because of the people."