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Union Cites Lax US Office Building Security - 2002-06-12

A labor union that represents private security workers says safety standards are lax in many U.S. commercial buildings, nine months after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The union released results of a study Tuesday.

The survey polled 400 security workers in each of three large U.S. states: California, Texas and Florida. Four in ten security workers report no new security procedures in their buildings since September 11. Seven in ten say their buildings conduct no drills for bomb threats or natural disasters. And one in five security guards is working with no training.

The poll was sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, which represents 20,000 private security officers in the United States. The industry as a whole employs more than one million workers.

Union officials say the United States spends $90 billion a year on private security, more than double what it spends on public police forces. Union official Jono Shaffer says one problem in the security business is a high turnover of workers.

"Industry standards are between 100 and 300 percent turnover [per year] across the country in this industry...We know to be the case, working with security officers."

The union official says in 22 U.S. states, private security workers do not need to be licensed, and 15 other states require no criminal background checks.

Analyst Jeff Schlanger of Kroll Security Services, a private consulting firm, says a related problem is a lack of training. "I work in New York, and I drive to work on occasion, and I pull into a garage, and there is a security officer who is at the gate that I have to enter, and he asks me to open my trunk," he said. "I open my trunk, he peaks in, closes the trunk and gives me a thumbs up. He has no idea what he is looking for. And I know he has no idea, because I have spoken to these guys."

Mr. Schlanger's firm was hired to assess security at New York's World Trade Center after a 1993 bombing that killed six people and injured more than one thousand. He says after the incident, security officers at the complex became the best-trained private security force in the city. More than 100 security workers attended monthly classes and conducted frequent drills. The consultant says the training proved essential September 11, when commercial aircraft struck the center's twin towers. "The training of that security workforce is in fact credited with the saving of countless lives," he said.

"They were the first ones there," said Janet Boston, who worked at the World Trade Center as a security officer for 26 years. She was off work September 11 but lost 60 of her colleagues, who died helping others to safety. "They knew that building. The fire department, the police department had to come to them. If it weren't for security officers knowing how to go up the stairways, knowing what exits were open, what exits were closed, more lives would have been lost," she said.

The service employees union wants to raise standards in the security industry through legislation and licensing, as well as through training partnerships with labor unions, private employers and government.

Analyst Jeff Schlanger adds that it is not just security guards who need disaster training. "I believe that each employee, whether it be at city hall or at a high-rise building, can play an important role in security and life safety and each employee should be trained up to their level of expertise," said Mr. Schlanger, who recommends a trained evacuation team with members on each floor of office buildings.

Union officials are hoping for another change in the security industry. Now, security contracts usually go to the lowest bidder. They say trained security officers may cost a company more, but offer a higher level of safety for a building's workers.