In a corporate boardroom high in a skyscraper, a small, dapper man delicately touches a button on a console.

"YESSIR!" comes the instant response.

Speaking softly, he requests certain information.

"YESSIR!"

The info arrives in 90 seconds, and the man smiles. This is how Ira A. Lipman likes his employees -- quick, courteous, reliable.

In four decades of relentless perfectionism, Lipman has built his security firm, Guardsmark, into a national leader. With unusually tough standards for screening and training its 17,500 uniformed guards and plainclothes security consultants, the company is considered one of the more reliable in America's vast, under-regulated rent-a-cop industry.

Sept. 11 revelations about lax airport screening -- a small part of the industry -- cast a new spotlight on the 1.5 million private security personnel who patrol and control access at factories, office buildings, hospitals, banks, utilities and other sites.

It's an army as big as the U.S. military and twice the size of all police departments in the country, Lipman notes. Yet there's little federal regulation, and state oversight is often slipshod.

In 31 states, security firms may not access FBI fingerprint files showing if job applicants have criminal records in other jurisdictions, and 10 of those states have no rules at all governing the business.

Lipman, 61, shakes his head. "I think people would be horrified if they knew some of the circumstances that exist."

Nightmare scenarios haunt him.

"There are security officers in this nation who are convicted murderers and rapists," he told a U.S. House subcommittee in 1993, "who are thrilled at the sight of fire, who think that a uniform gives them authority and that a gun gives them power, who cannot control their urges . . . who prey on those they're hired to protect, who cannot keep the barbarians outside the gates because they are the barbarians, and they're already inside."

Little has changed since, though other industry leaders have joined with Lipman in an effort to tighten standards -- particularly after Sept. 11 as Congress federalized airport screening.

On April 24, in a broader initiative driven by the "urgent need to strengthen our homeland security," Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced a bill to make FBI fingerprint files available to private security firms nationwide.

"Private guard services are a huge part of national security," Levin, the lead sponsor, said in an interview. "You've got people like Ira Lipman wanting to improve quality, and we should facilitate that.

"I've known him for a long time," the senator added. ". . . Ira got me interested in this a year or two ago."

Ira Lipman, top guard.

Ramping Up Quality

As industry giants like Pinkerton's, Burns and Wackenhut have recently been bought by foreign conglomerates, Lipman's prominence has grown. Guardsmark -- fourth or fifth in size -- remains one of the last big security firms still in American hands.

If Levin's Private Security Officer Employment Standards Act passes, Lipman says, "Guardsmark will implement it immediately from coast to coast. . . . We've got people at refineries, global telecommunications facilities, stock exchanges and other sensitive places, and we've got to know who they are."

At Guardsmark headquarters in Memphis, aides keep a running "Crimes by Guards Report" based on media reports:

"Louisville, Ky. (1/6/01) -- A security guard was arrested for allegedly impersonating a police officer and raping two women.

"Nashville, Tenn. (1/10/01) -- A security guard was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. . . . The guard had a criminal record at the time he was hired. No background check was done.

"Detroit, Mich. (1/12/01) -- A judge . . . ordered a store security guard to stand trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter [after] a man died during a confrontation with store security.

"Bronx, N.Y. (1/17/01) -- A security guard was charged with stabbing a woman to death in her apartment at the building he was hired to protect. The guard was a convicted felon."

None of the incidents involves Guardsmark, which requires 40-page personal histories, polygraphs, and psychological and drug testing -- and still hires only one in 50 applicants.

Though some Lipman employees have been arrested on the job (21 in six years), he says none of the crimes was violent -- most were for theft of cash, a credit card or laptop computer -- and the firm's arrest record is even lower than the FBI's.

Still, Lipman frets. "It horrifies me," he says, to think of inadvertently assigning a criminal -- to say nothing of a terrorist -- to one of Guardsmark's 2,000 accounts in 400 cities.

He won't name clients, saying many are Fortune 1000 firms in manufacturing, communications, finance and other sectors. Guardsmark has three offices in the Washington area, with 750 security officers serving 100 clients.

Lipman dropped airport screening in 1988 because, he says, airlines saw it as "perfunctory." He won't touch federal work because "they want the lowest bidder." Nor does he guard nuclear plants, because utilities won't ante up for "the best people."

"Security has been looked on as a commodity. I've been trying to change the perception of a security person as some guard walking around with a flashlight. There's a serious responsibility."

A guard's job -- Lipman prefers "security officer" -- is basically to keep a sharp eye on things, notify a supervisor if something's awry and react appropriately in crises. Private officers can't make arrests.

"You are a human symbol who reflects authority and a sense of orderliness by your very presence," a Guardsmark training document advises. "Your role is to act as a deterrent to criminal behavior."

This is the humble but critical task -- median pay is $10 an hour -- that Lipman wants to upgrade to "career status, so we won't have transients." He charges clients top dollar and offers all employees paid vacations, 401(k) plans, insurance and tuition reimbursement -- rare benefits in an industry traditionally ranked with janitorial work.

He's not alone in the effort. "Companies concerned about quality are pushing aggressively to raise wages and benefits," says Don Walker, head of Pinkerton's and Burns International Security Services, both recently acquired by Sweden's Securitas Group to form the largest security outfit in the United States. "It's important to raise the level of professionalism."

Walker, who co-chairs an American Society for Industrial Security committee pushing for higher standards, was in Washington lobbying Congress the week Levin introduced his bill -- yet he didn't know details of the Lipman-backed legislation.

"Ira has been a visionary," Walker says, but he believes the Guardsmark chief operates in "a cloud of secrecy. My information is he's working with Senator Levin, but see, the industry doesn't know that. He could be much more effective" by sharing information.

Lynn Oliver, president of American Security Systems, a Dulles-based firm with 300 officers in Virginia, Maryland and the District, says, "For the most part, Ira does a good job, but he's not the only one."

Lipman chuckles at criticism. "See, I cost people money," he says, referring to Guardsmark's unusual benefits.

They've worked, he contends. Guardsmark's employee turnover rate is a fraction of the industry's eye-popping annual average of 250 percent -- though it's still an uncomfortable 47 percent, far too high to suit Lipman.

One of his guards, who asked not to be identified, laments that even at Guardsmark it can seem "you're just on a conveyor belt, filling a hole."

On the other hand, Lipman has salted management with 30 retired top guns from the FBI -- including former deputy director Weldon L. Kennedy; William A. Gavin, who led the 1993 World Trade Center bombing investigation; counterterrorist expert James E. Tomlinson; and Robert J. Opfer, former chief of security countermeasures for FBI facilities.

Lipman's high-end approach to a gritty business has paid off. After 24 years of 12 percent annual growth, his privately held firm's revenues hit $425 million last year.

"Guardsmark," says Charles F. Wellford, chairman of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, "is the company I recommend when a student walks in and says he wants to go into the security industry."

In an intense five-hour interview, Lipman says he's driven by something beyond business goals, however. His ideals are emblazoned on the jacket patches of his uniformed officers:

"TRUTH. COURAGE. JUDGEMENT."

American Dreamer

His dad's name was Mark.

In 1935, Mark Lipman moved from Philadelphia to Little Rock and became a private eye. Ira was 8 years old when he began working for him.

The kid would drive with his father and other employees to Southern cities and, working undercover, try to spot dishonest store clerks. Ira loved it, but was also troubled:

"Our crews had African Americans and women -- my father recruited people from a black college -- and as we were driving I might fall asleep on the shoulder of an African American man. We were all human beings together.

"Then we'd stop in town and the man couldn't stay in the same hotel! It was repugnant."

Later Ira, too, was a target. "I'd be running, kids would be shouting, 'Dirty Jew!' and throwing rocks at me."

In 1957 he befriended an African American who was working at the Jewish country club his parents belonged to. That fall, Ernest Green became one of the "Little Rock Nine" integrating Central High School.

As Gov. Orval Faubus sought to prevent integration and President Eisenhower sent troops to enforce it, Lipman says, "I remember the huge crowds, the tanks, the soldiers with fixed bayonets."

By chance, he'd met NBC's Frank McGee. Though Ira attended a different school, he had a pass to enter Central -- plus his friendship with Green -- and he fed McGee information.

"One day, I get a phone call at home from John Chancellor and he says, 'I understand you're our contact in Little Rock.' " David Halberstam, in his book "The Fifties," recounts how Chancellor, whose fame began with his coverage of this monumental story, found his key source in "a 16-year-old Little Rock boy named Ira Lipman."

Lipman, Halberstam writes, "decided to help Chancellor because he . . . thought him decent and fair-minded. . . . He would gather information and then call Chancellor anonymously from a pay phone.

"Lipman always had to whisper lest another student discover what he was doing. . . . The boy was placing himself in great danger. But having this source gave Chancellor a terrific edge."

Lipman says he was just "a scared kid, making a desperate cry for help. . . . I wanted people to see the truth." When NBC put him and other teenagers on national TV, he denounced segregation.

"Less than an hour after the program ended I had received three phone calls threatening my life," he wrote his colleagues in AZA, a B'nai B'rith fraternal order for young men. "Segregation has always been morally indefensible."

Lipman attended college but quit in 1960 to work for his father in Memphis, where the family had moved. In 1963, he started Guardsmark -- a name chosen to honor his dad.

"My father's business was investigative. I was more interested in prevention and protection -- trying to avoid problems, protecting people's rights, lives and assets."

The dream became his lifelong obsession.

Lipman's youthful experiences led him to promote diversity at Guardsmark before the practice was widespread. "He'd risk losing business by assigning African Americans to accounts," a colleague recalls. "They'd say they wanted 'someone like us,' but he wouldn't bend."

Lipman and his firm "have long been recognized as leaders in their commitment to values-driven management," Dawn-Marie Driscoll and W. Michael Hoffman of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College wrote in their 2000 study, "Ethics Matters."

Lipman's story, they wrote, is one of "clear moral values -- developed by family, nurtured and honed across a lifetime of work dedicated to protecting human life [and] exemplified in public service."

In 1990, as chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, since renamed National Conference for Community and Justice, Lipman promoted the election of attorney Aly Y. Massoud to the NCCJ's executive board -- its first Muslim.

In 1995, he established the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

"Imagine what it was like for a sensitive Jewish boy growing up in Little Rock right after World War II," he said in his announcement speech as the legendary reporter, who would die the following year, watched.

"As time went on, there were more and more revelations about the Holocaust. [In 1952], Anne Frank's diary was first published in English and brought home to me with immense force the horror of bigotry, prejudice and hatred.

"I couldn't understand how people could allow such things to happen, until I learned that people didn't know. . . . The Nazis cloaked their crimes in darkness. . . . When the school integration crisis hit, [Chancellor] dispelled the lies and ignorance with light and truth.

"I often wonder what might have happened if a John Chancellor had known of Auschwitz, or had even reported the rumors, spreading light over what Elie Wiesel called the 'Kingdom of Night.'

"Perhaps Anne Frank would still be alive today."

New World

Early on Sept. 11, Lipman awoke in a New York hotel.

He started the day with prayer, as is his custom, and went to the exercise room for his 53 minutes on the treadmill. "I looked out the window and I was in shock -- at how beautiful the day was!"

Then, as he watched TV during his workout, came the next shock as the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

Lipman raced to his room and got on the phone.

He had 200 security officers serving 20 clients in the Trade Center complex and immediate vicinity, and also feared that the attack would be widespread.

"I was concerned about certain customers I thought would be prime targets if this was going to be a sustained thing. I thought they'd go after the media, and I was very concerned about the movie studios in California -- anything that was apple pie-USA."

Phone lines were clogged, but Lipman got through to executives who began contacting clients in high-risk cities -- New York, Washington, L.A. -- arranging to implement stringent security.

By cell phone he reached his son, Gus, a Guardsmark senior vice president, who was running toward the firm's New York headquarters.

"You better start calling clients immediately in New York," Lipman told him, "and let them know we're going to run out of people, but we'll bring them in from around the country."

Gus found that their headquarters building had been closed by the mayor as a possible target. Within hours, Lipman, his son and other Guardsmark executives were working from a "war room" in an employee's apartment.

One New York client's security chief was out of town, and Lipman loaned a top executive to replace him. In Washington, security was tightened in all client buildings, one of which was evacuated after a bomb threat.

Meanwhile, in the chaos near the World Trade Center, Guardsmark officers evacuated clients from skyscrapers and pulled people in off the streets to safety as debris rained down.

At a client's office in One Liberty Plaza, across Church Street from the Trade Center complex, supervisor Derrick Johnson organized evacuation of the 48th through 52nd floors, helping a disabled woman get down the stairs.

"This was no time to panic," said officer Levonn Chisolm, who evacuated people from the 52nd floor. "You had to keep your composure."

Downstairs, in a deli where he'd led evacuees, officer Adrian Melendez saw "people covered in soot and banging against the window." He and Chisolm went out and brought them in. "We tried to save as many people as we could," Chisolm said.

Later, One Liberty Plaza partially collapsed.

As the day unfolded, Guardsmark offices nationwide were ordered to stay open 24 hours. Hundreds of company security specialists from elsewhere in the country were summoned to New York.

"We brought in experts in sophisticated access and control systems, computer security and console monitoring," Gus recalls, "and got them into the city even though tunnels and bridges were closed."

In the days that followed, Gus says, "customers moved into temporary space and were trying to get back into business. We were an integral part of that."

By happenstance, Guardsmark had no guards in the towers when the planes hit. Officer Angelo DeCaro had just left Tower 2 after a shift on the 57th and 58th floors.

He watched the nightmare from the Staten Island Ferry.

"Thank God I wasn't there."

Warning

Lipman worries about America.

He worries about "denial. Outside the Eastern seaboard and Los Angeles, people don't think anything will happen."

He's concerned, too, that politicians will fail to follow through on the initiative of Levin and his co-sponsors, and of similar work on the House side led by Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.).

"This legislation," Lipman says, "is a critical part of protecting our society. There are lives at stake."

Briefed by the former FBI experts he's hired, he's convinced that "sleeper cells" of terrorists are waiting to strike again.

He believes that a humble security guard -- well trained, alert, devoted -- could make a difference, save a life.

Or a building full of lives.

"We're in a war, an unending war," Lipman says. "Things will never be as they were. Relentless vigilance will be the inheritance of Americans for generations."

"We're in a war, an unending war," says Ira A. Lipman, whose Guardsmark security firm is among the most selective in the business, hiring only one in 50 applicants."We're in a war, an unending war," says Ira A. Lipman, whose Guardsmark security firm is among the most selective in the business, hiring only one in 50 applicants."I've been trying to change the perception of a security person as some guard walking around with a flashlight," says Ira Lipman. "There's a serious responsibility." Above, a Guardsmark training room.