Private Security Guards: Weak Link in Homeland Security

Low-pay, greater responsibilities, background checks play into concerns

For guards at the Energy Department's nuclear weapons facilities, failure to protect nuclear materials from terrorists could be catastrophic. That's why their training is far more exhaustive than that of most security officer recruits.

At the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles (105 kilometers) from Las Vegas, contract guards working for the Wackenhut Corp. train in desert camouflage and military helmets, fire automatic weapons, put on gas masks and kick up the desert dust in military Humvees with gunners on top.

They crouch behind cactus plants to shoot at targets, stalk "intruders" with drawn sidearms and burst through doors of buildings, first dropping "flash-bang" devices that have an explosive sound and fill the room with smoke.

"Failure on our part is failure to protect a vital national security asset," said David Bradley, the Wackenhut general manager at the test site. "We don't see that ever occurring."

Other sites protected by the security industry include drinking water reservoirs; oil and gas refineries; ports; bus and rail commuter terminals; nuclear power plants; chemical plants; food supplies; hospitals; and communications networks.

Bergendahl, the Los Angeles guard who protects the 52-story high rise near the formerly named Library Tower - now the US Bank Tower - thinks often of Bush's disclosure last year that terrorists with shoe bombs planned to take control of a jetliner and crash it into the 73-story landmark building. Bergendahl helps protect a building occupied by 6,000 workers and a Japanese consulate.

"It scares me," said Bergendahl, who has spent 28 years as a security guard.

Bergendahl said his training usually consists of a real estate manager reading security measures to him every few months. His building rarely has evacuation drills. Management's advice? "Keep your coat buttoned. Keep your shoes shiny," Bergendahl said.

Franklin Bullock, 51, a guard at the busy bus and rail commuter station in Kent, Washington, near Seattle, said he's had no drills with police and fire responders despite terrorist bombings of trains and buses overseas.

A supervisor once tested Bullock by walking him down the platform to see whether he would spot a package he could hardly miss. It had "BOM" written on it. That was the end of his useful hands-on training, Bullock said.

"Everybody's so afraid he's going to make a mistake," said the $25,000-a-year (€18,600-a-year) guard, who spent most of his working life as a security guard or correctional officer. "There's no security at all."

Maria Macay, 54, a former travel agent, has been working the midnight-to-8 shift guarding a hospital in San Francisco for about $25,000 a year (€18,600-a-year). She donned a protective suit and mask in a drill for a possible chemical or biological attack, but she isn't confident she could handle a real attack.

"I don't think I learned a lot," she said. "It's scary. Thank God, it hasn't happened. If I had to be put in that situation, what is going to happen to my family if something happens to me?"

The pay for security guards generally is low. In an annual survey of employers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median hourly pay for security guards in 2006 was $11.35 (€8.40), compared to restaurant cooks at $10.11 (€7.50), janitors at $10.45 (€7.80) and laboratory animal caretakers at $10.13 (€7.54).

Police patrol officers were at $23.27 (€17.30), emergency management specialists $24.26 (€18) and firefighters $20.37 (€15.20). The median reflects the same number of individuals above those amounts as below.