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Aiming for Prevention

The Federal Protective Service works to improve security and protect employees and citizens from active shooters in the thousands of federal facilities across the country.



The Washington Navy Yard shooting and the shootout on the Capitol grounds during the fall of last year piqued the interest of federal lawmakers on the subject of active shooter preparedness—chiefly what processes are in place to thwart similar critical incidents and the response mechanisms in position to deal with them when they do arise. Even though the occurrences in the nation’s capital were national newsmakers, lower-profile shootings have also taken place on federal properties nationwide. A few days after the Washington shootings, an active shooter began firing into a federal courthouse in Wheeling, W.Va., killing an ex-police officer on the scene. This latter anecdote serves to illustrate the essentiality for safety precautions and response systems to protect the 57,000 federal facilities located around the country, many of which are not high-profile targets. By examining Washington’s response to recent active shooter incidences, state and local law enforcement can observe what is occurring to parallel and complement efforts within their jurisdictions.

Response to the Navy Yard shooting

Shortly after the Navy Yard shooting, the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security’s oversight and management efficiency subcommittee held a hearing on federal facility protection and fallout from the incident. The hearing concentrated on the proactive security measures that are currently in place at federal facilities and what is being done to improve security in light of the recent shootings. The Federal Protective Service was at the heart of the discussion.

The Federal Protective Service (FPS) stands as the stronghold for ensuring the protection of federal facilities from critical incidents. FPS, a division of the National Protection and Programs Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security, is in charge of safeguarding federal facilities and the federal employees, contractors and visitors housed within those facilities. It is the primary organization for protecting and securing almost half of the General Services Administration’s (GSA) properties—about 9,600 facilities nationwide. Responsibilities for the division include conducting facility assessments, recommending countermeasures, monitoring facilities, responding to incidents and conducting criminal investigations, among other duties.

The FPS possesses approximately 1,200 full-time employees, and it also utilizes approximately 13,500 contract Protective Security Officers (PSOs). Akin to full-time FPS officers, PSOs are hired to execute the functions necessary to fulfill the mission of the division.

During the Oct. 30, 2013 hearing, PSOs came under scrutiny after the findings of a Government Accountability Office report were released detailing the findings from a September 2013 audit of the FPS. The latest report has been one in a series investigating the FPS and its operations since 2008. According to the report, some of the contract PSOs are not adequately trained, notably in the areas of active shooter preparedness and the screening of individuals entering federal buildings. Officials from five contract guard units reported their guards had not received proper active shooter training. In another citation, officials from one guard company said around 38 percent of its contract officers had not received proper screening training. In light of the findings, FPS has “limited assurance” that contract guards can suitably respond to an active shooter episode or that they are screening entrants into federal facilities correctly. Additionally, the report found that FPS continues to lack effective management controls to ensure that guards have met training and certification requirements. Even though complying with 2010 and 2012 GAO recommendations to develop a comprehensive and reliable system for contract guard oversight, FPS still does not have such a system. After seeing the recommendations from the GAO September report, the DHS and FPS agreed with the findings.

Accompanying the results of the report, L. Eric Patterson, director of the FPS, highlighted the active shooter preparedness training program that FPS has developed. The Active Shooter Tenant Awareness program has provided training to more than 3,300 federal facility tenants. Components of the program include the history and evolution of active shooter incidents and response to active shooter hazards for federal tenant agencies. He also emphasized that more than 61,000 FPS law enforcement officers and agents have been trained in “active shooter response tactics.” Moreover, he pointed to the 258,000 times DHS’ active shooter Web page—which provides webinars, courses, and workshops on how to handle an active shooter situation and raise awareness of behaviors that represent pre-incident indicators and characteristics of active shooters—has been viewed since its launch in January 2013.

Director Patterson’s testimony points to successful educational initiatives to train FPS personnel and PSOs on how to prevent and respond to active shooter scenarios, but the September 2013 GAO report stresses the necessity for greater oversight to ensure proper training of all contract guards. With loopholes in standardized training procedures, proactive training measures and the subsequent gap in knowledge on how to handle an actual shooter scenario, the total usefulness of the training is negated.

State and local law enforcement

As Washington investigates pitfalls in federal facility security and preparedness for the next active shooter incident, state and local law enforcement agencies are also affected by the findings of these inspections and any subsequent actions taken. While there are 57,000 federal facilities located around the country with federal protection—contracted or otherwise—state and local law enforcement agencies are usually a part of a unified response to combat any critical incidences alongside proper federal agencies, such as active shooter scenarios.

For instance, in the case of the Navy Yard shooting, the FPS took a supporting role as part of the on-scene Navy Yard Unified Command Center. The District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked in conjunction to guarantee the security of the Navy Yard perimeter and areas in proximity to the facility. With the FPS serving as the front lines to hinder active shooters and being the first on scene in such an attack, its operations affect the unified response procedures for other law enforcement agencies. Any gaps in FPS training, screening procedures or response yield troublesome consequences for law enforcement counterparts.

In addition to aiding in unified responses, federal agencies also service state and local enforcement for active shooter preparedness. As previously mentioned, DHS maintains a bevy of educational information for active shooter training. The Department of Justice and the FBI also facilitate law enforcement training regarding active shooter scenarios. This includes training for first responder law enforcement officers provided through the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) program. Training state and local law enforcement works complementarily to assist federal agencies in emergency situations on federal grounds. Once again, training is effective in protecting federal facilities only if taught properly and thoroughly to all stakeholders, be it federal law enforcement or state and local law enforcement.

The Navy Yard shooting and recent federal facility shootings underscore the significance of safety precautions and response systems in place on federal premises. The Oct. 30, 2013 House hearing on the Navy Yard shooting brought the mission and operations of the FPS into focus, and the findings and recommendations from the GAO investigation of the division pointed to flaws in contractor training. With a disparity in proper active shooter training and screening procedures in contract security guards, the FPS faces an increased risk for a potential active shooter scenario, which has repercussions for state and local law enforcement as well. Federal actions trickle down to all levels of law enforcement. State and local law enforcement agencies play a major role in the unified response to critical incidents, and they can harmonize with federal efforts to mitigate the effects of active shooter situations with proper training.