Contract guards who protect federal buildings have received uneven and inconsistent training on responding to shootings like the one last month at the Washington Navy Yard, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.
The report from the Government Accountability Office says the Federal Protective Service, which safeguards the country's federal buildings, lacks an effective system for making sure that its contract guards have been properly trained and certified before being assigned to a post.
It says officials from five companies that contract with the agency reported that their guards had not gone through active-shooter training even though FPS officials say such training has been required since 2010.
The report's findings were summarized at a House subcommittee hearing on federal building security held in the aftermath of the Sept. 16 deadly shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. A former Navy reservist, Aaron Alexis, killed 12 people inside the building where he worked before being fatally shot by police. A contract security guard was among those killed.
L. Eric Patterson, the director of the Federal Protective Service, testified that the agency has developed an active-shooter awareness program that has trained more than 3,300 people.
But the GAO report says such training is uneven at best; Of the 16 contract guard companies interviewed on the topic, only half said their guards had received active-shooter training during an eight-hour, FPS-provided orientation session. The rest said their guards either hadn't gotten the training or that the topic was covered at some time other than the orientation.
It says the agency, unable to guarantee that all of its guards have received the training, "has limited assurance that its guards are prepared for this threat."
The report calls on the agency to immediately identify guards who haven't been trained and provide them with training. The agency requires guard companies to maintain files with training and certification information, and the GAO report says it should develop procedures for a monthly review of those files.
Because guards at facilities are not federal law enforcement officers and are constrained by state laws on what actions they may take, they are not expected to directly pursue a gunman unless the building is in a remote area and no one else is able to come quickly, Patterson said.
"However, if we come across a situation where the (private security officer) is the only individual in that facility and has no reasonable expectation that law enforcement can respond in a reasonably quick manner, then that individual will more than likely take action to limit the damage of an active shooter," Patterson said.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee's oversight and management efficiency subcommittee, said he was concerned a "bureaucratic" response requiring multiple levels of communication would put people at risk during a mass shooting.
"Are lives not threatened even further? Is there a delay, I guess is what I'm asking?" the South Carolina Republican asked.
Patterson said a security officer's first obligation is to protect the people in the area.
"His responsibility is to ensure that he can keep people from coming into the building or getting people out of the building. So he's got a job to do right there," he added. "In this case, we're hoping, we believe, we're going to have a quick response by either federal law enforcement, our folks, or by the state and local (police) if they're in the area."