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For building security, agencies often fend for themselves

Sep. 17, 2012 - 08:01AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
Agencies last year paid the Federal Protective Service $236 million in fees to assess risks and provide security at their buildings. But a growing number of those agencies are spending even more to assess their own security needs out of concern that FPS is doing that job poorly.
Agencies last year paid the Federal Protective Service $236 million in fees to assess risks and provide security at their buildings. But a growing number of those agencies are spending even more to assess their own security needs out of concern that FPS is doing that job poorly. ()

Congressional auditors have raised doubts for years about the Federal Protective Service’s ability to protect federal facilities from terrorists, criminals and other threats.

Apparently, many agencies that FPS protects share those doubts.

Agencies last year paid the Federal Protective Service $236 million in fees to assess risks and provide security at their buildings. But a growing number of those agencies are spending even more to assess their own security needs out of concern that FPS is doing that job poorly.

Those agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, Internal Revenue Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, said some agencies assess their own building security needs because they have different security standards than those of FPS.

“But sometimes, they just don’t think the FPS is doing a good job,” Goldstein added.

Like all agencies, the EPA pays FPS an annual fee of 74 cents per square foot to guard its facilities and assess security needs at those facilities.

But for the last two years, EPA has been assessing its own security needs — at an additional cost of about $6,000 per building — even though it pays FPS to do that.

FPS has not conducted any facility security assessments on EPA facilities since April 2010 because the FPS assessments do not adhere to federal standards, according to EPA spokesman Dale Kemery.

EPA paid FPS $28.8 million in fiscal 2011 for guard services, security equipment and risk assessments for 102 facilities that GSA leases on its behalf. But EPA conducted its own security assessments on 61 of those buildings, according to the agency.

“FPS currently is not assessing risk at the over 9,000 federal facilities under the custody and control of GSA in a manner consistent with federal standards,” a GAO report released last week said.

A key problem in the way FPS assesses security risks at federal facilities, GAO reported, is that it fails to consider the consequences of a security lapse in its assessments. This means that tenant agencies lack critical information needed to decide how to best allocate resources to protect facilities.

The agency also does not evaluate the mission of an agency in determining how much security it will need, according to Goldstein.

GAO said more than 5,000 facilities were supposed to be assessed for security vulnerabilities between 2010 and this year, but GAO said it could not determine how big the backlog is because FPS’ data is unreliable.

Further, FPS could not say when it last conducted security assessments on 9 percent — or roughly 800 — of federal facilities, GAO found.

Because of these and other problems, many agencies are opting not to rely on FPS to assess their security needs.

GSA has grown frustrated that FPS fails to provide timely security assessments on leased properties, so it has resurrected a security assessment tool it used in the 1990s, when FPS was part of GSA. FPS was moved to the Department of Homeland Security when it was created in 2003.

FEMA conducts its own risk assessments in some cases in addition to FPS assessments because of the speed with which the agency needs to set up facilities at a moment’s notice, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said.

“Because of the nature and urgency of FEMA’s emergency management and response mission, there is a regular need for unplanned facility creation and the required assessment as to whether those facilities are suitable to open to the public,” Chandler said.

He said FPS provides a variety of security services for FEMA for which the agency pays $1.1 million annually.

However, one unnamed FEMA official told GAO that the agency was dissatisfied with the security levels FPS assigned to its facilities, according to the report.

FPS officials say they have taken steps to improve operations, including more training for staff members and working closely with customer agencies. FPS has conducted 2,000 security assessments since fiscal 2011, and it has begun an additional 435, FPS spokesman Rob Winchester said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said recent GAO reports show that FPS is not meeting its mandate to secure federal facilities.

“Numerous recent reports show systemic problems — poor communication with its federal, state, local, private partners; a lack of up-to-date facility information; a lack of a dedicated funding source and uncertain legal authority — needlessly hamper our ability to ensure the safety and security of federal facilities,” Thompson said.

FPS has an annual budget of about $1.3 billion and oversees 12,000 contract security guards and about 9,000 federal buildings.

Thompson has authored several bills that would increase staffing levels at FPS, require greater training of contract guards and increase oversight of agency spending.

Unused tool

One reason FPS struggles to assess the security needs of federal facilities is that it mismanaged a program to develop a tool to do that, GAO reported.

FPS spent four years and $35 million developing a security assessment program — $14 million and two years more than planned. That program, called the Risk Assessment and Management Program (RAMP), was abandoned this year as unreliable.

As a result, FPS teamed up with the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory to develop an interim tool to assess federal buildings, called the Modified Infrastructure Survey Tool (MIST), but that tool does not provide a comprehensive assessment of building security, according to GAO.

By the end of this month, FPS will finish training its inspectors in using the interim MIST and begin using it to conduct assessments.

And while FPS was supposed to use MIST only as a “bridge” tool for about 18 months, it will most likely use it for several years because it has no plans to develop a more permanent tool to conduct security assessments, Goldstein said.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FPS, said the security of public servants is even more important in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on American embassies that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others.

He said the committee has pushed FPS to better protect federal agencies.

“It hasn’t measured up to what it should at a time when old lines that used to be drawn about what our enemies could attack are gone,” Lieberman said. “Anybody is a target, unfortunately.”

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