Private Security Guards: Weak Link in Homeland Security

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

The Service Employees International Union is trying to raise guard pay by negotiating master contracts with multiple companies in urban areas. The union has contracts for guards in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and the San Francisco Bay area. Negotiations are under way in Seattle, and the union hopes for talks in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Many industries pay lobbyists generously to keep government regulators away. Large security firms want tougher regulation by state governments.

They want mandatory training requirements and a required national background check for all job applicants that would be accessible to all security firms. Currently, companies can access the FBI's national fingerprint database only through state agencies. If the state doesn't require background checks, companies are barred from the system.

"Imagine an industry saying, 'Please regulate me.' It's pretty unusual," said William Whitmore, chief executive and president of AlliedBarton.

Company executives are worried about their industry's reputation, and they don't want to be caught hiring convicted felons to protect other Americans.

"Potentially you could have a small organization who might want to cut corners and, God forbid, you're not sure who they're hiring," said Robert Johnson, a vice president of Blackstone Valley Security in Cranston, Rhode Island.

Rich Powers, owner of Guilford Security Agency Inc. of Greensboro, North Carolina, said, "We've had everything from an arsonist to a burglar and a shoplifter" applying for jobs.

Nobody knows how private security guards would perform in an actual terrorist attack, but several incidents serve as potential warnings:

_In September 2004, at the Energy Department's enriched uranium stockpile plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a force of armed contract guards ran through the dark to confront "intruders" - a team of guards conducting a mock attack. Some guards and outside watchdog groups said there was sufficient confusion to potentially cause an accidental shooting. Bryan Wilkes, an Energy Department spokesman, disputed the account, saying, "No accidental shooting came close to happening."

_In fall 2005, an envelope with suspicious powder was opened by guards at the Washington headquarters of the Homeland Security Department. The guards carried the substance past the office of Secretary Michael Chertoff, took it outside and then shook it outside Chertoff's window without evacuating people nearby. The powder turned out to be harmless.

_Since September 2001, guards have been caught napping or playing computer games at nuclear power plants, and one was caught dozing at a federal courthouse. Three security workers were investigated for "inattentiveness" at Three Mile Island in 2005, said Ralph DeSantis, a spokesman for the nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the site in 1979 of the nation's worst nuclear accident.

_Guards with criminal backgrounds have committed criminal offenses on and off duty in numerous cities.

Some companies have decided to conduct anti-terrorism training, regardless of whether their clients will cover the cost.

At the AlliedBarton office in Washington's Virginia suburbs, training instructor Richard Cordivari's class consisted of 13 company guards. Their assignments included a financial institution, high-rise office buildings, Washington's water and sewer utility, a university and a shopping mall.

Get to know the people who deliver packages and bottled water, Cordivari instructed. Make sure the person repairing the air conditioner is supposed to be there. Watch for people casing the location. Take note of odd smells. Know how to conduct a thorough search.

Private guards at military bases, who feared they would be fired if identified by name, told the AP they were trained to use handguns and nightsticks to fight terrorists who might be equipped with assault rifles and grenade launchers.