Do security guards provide enough security?


By Ronda Kaysen

On Sept. 11, 2001 Abdul Willie Al-hammami stayed at his post five blocks south of the World Trade Center until 4 p.m. urging the occupants of a 37-story office tower to stay inside until it was safe to evacuate.

When the August 2003 blackout blanketed the Northeast in darkness, Al-hammami , a slight 30-year-old man known to his friends as Willie, evacuated the building’s 1,200 occupants and worked with engineers to free passengers trapped in the elevators.

He is neither a police officer nor a firefighter. He is a private security guard.

As the fire safety director for 39 Broadway, which houses TD Waterhouse, he earns about $12 an hour. He is one of 60,000 private security guards patrolling the city’s buildings, according to Service Employees International Union 32-BJ.

Since 9/11, the private security industry has become the focus of increasing attention by lawmakers, security experts and labor activists who insist that security guard training laws and standards are outdated in this post-9/11 age. The New York State law regulating private security guards has not changed since 1992 — a year before the 1993 W.T.C. bombing. The law does not address counter terrorism training, although it does acknowledge terrorism as a possible threat.

“Security guards today are perceived to have a role that they didn’t have to the same extent in the past,” said Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who helped draft the security guard training legislation in 1991. “Like it or not, [security guards] are considered an extension of Homeland Security. They are the eyes and ears to aid police and other officials in their endeavors.”

Under state law, security guards must complete an eight-hour course in order to be eligible for a security job, complete 16 additional hours of training in the first 90 days of employment and take an annual eight-hour refresher course, a training program that critics call woefully inadequate. (Fire safety directors, like Al-hammimi, must take a two-week course in order to be certified.)

McCrie says the law was “already insufficient” when it was first enacted in 1992 and is now “clearly insufficient.”

Al-hammami, who is employed by Elite Investigations, would like to receive training that would help him understand “the anatomy of a criminal” so he could make more educated decisions about whom to check and whom to let into the building. “It’s about picking somebody out of a crowd,” he said.

Private security guards have seen their job description change dramatically in the past four years. Carl Hall, a fire safety director employed by Elite, works at 195 Broadway. As part of his post-9/11 daily routine, he checks the subway station beneath the building, scouring it for signs of danger and vagrants. In most cases, security guards are the first responders in a disaster in any given building.

“We put our life on the line everyday,” Hall said at a recent Community Board 1 public meeting. “We would like additional training.” Eleven security guards died in the World Trade Center disaster.

City and state officials have begun to take notice. This spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and S.E.I.U. 32-BJ president Michael Fishman announced a new program to give unionized security officers in commercial buildings additional training. So far, 115 officers have taken the 40-hour course taught by off-duty N.Y.P.D. Police Academy officers. Last year, 32-BJ launched a similar program for residential security officers. Only unionized officers are eligible for the program.

“Our training is intended to get people up to a basic standard,” said 32-BJ vice president Lenore Friedlaender, adding “It gives them an added level of confidence.”

The Port Authority, which patrols the W.T.C. site and the adjoining PATH station, contracts a battery of security guards — as well as police officers — to patrol the property. “Security is an evolving process and any measure that would call for additional training can only further assist those who work to assure public safety,” said Tony Ciavolella, a Port Authority spokesperson. In addition to the state required training measures, Port Authority requires their contractor — Summit Security — to provide security officers with five days of additional training and another three days for supervisors.

The 32-BJ program uses materials from the city’s Office of Emergency Management, the Fire Dept. and the Police Dept. to train guards, but some wonder if it is worth the cost — $125,000 — or the effort. “It’s informative, but it doesn’t elevate them to experts,” said Joseph Saponaro, president and founder of Elite, a 25-year-old private security firm with its own in-house training program. Saponaro is confident that Elite’s training program is sufficient to prepare the 800 security guards he employs. Elite provides security for seven New York City buildings, four of them Downtown. “We’re more up to date than most,” said Saponaro.

The Alliance for Downtown New York, a business improvement district, employs 64 private security guards to patrol the streets from Murray St. to the Battery and from West St. to South St. The Alliance guards have been patrolling Downtown since 1995, but in the nearly four years since the World Trade Center disaster, their job description has changed. “They themselves become more cautious. They work more closely with the police department,” said Linus Armstrong, director of public safety for the Alliance. “They’re more knowledgeable than they were before in what to look for, what stands out, what’s not ordinary.”

Despite the changing role of private security, Armstrong is confident the training his guards receive is adequate. “For the responsibilities that they have, I think it’s appropriate,” he said. “They’re not police officers, and I think that’s one thing that everybody has to understand. Their job is not to endanger themselves.” The best way to utilize private security guards is to have police officers communicate with security personnel on a regular basis.

In January, S.E.I.U. 32-BJ began a campaign to enlist more security guards in their union with calls for higher wages and improved employee benefits. Currently, 2,000 security guards are 32-BJ members.

Security guards typically earn $10 per hour or less, with few benefits. Low salaries translate to high turnover, says Friedlaender, meaning few security guards are familiar with the buildings and the tenants they protect.

“Just like there’s been an investment in the technology, there really needs to be an investment in the people, because it’s really the people that are going to make the biggest difference in the quality of security,” Friedlaender said. “Private security is really a public safety issue.” The union has actively reached out to Elite employees in its campaign, arguing that Elite pays its security guards lower wages than average.

“The more we ask [for raises,] the more we get turned down,” said Marlon Glanville, a 25-year-old Elite security guard at 100 Broadway. “We get tired of asking.”

“We’ve had constant change,” said Al-hammami , adding that in his experience most security guards stay with the company for a year or less. “We had a gentleman who was one of our best guys who stayed maybe three months before he found something else [that pays better.]”

Elite insists that its wages are competitive in the industry and turnover is not a problem. “We have some employees who are here 15 years, some for 15 weeks,” said Saponaro. “You’re not dealing with an overall turnover problem.” Saponaro is not terribly concerned about the unionization effort: another union attempted to organize employees working in one Elite building before, but the employees rejected the option.

Matt Nerzig, a spokesperson for 32-BJ attributed the failed attempt to the small-scale of the unionizing effort. The current plan is an industry-wide effort.

Better wages and benefits do translate to better employee retention, said Armstrong. When the Alliance first began dispatching security guards on the streets in 1995, the organization had trouble retaining its staff. “You’d have to train somebody new so often, that you would lose that professionalism,” he said.

In recent years the Alliance has seen its turnover rates drop, a change Armstrong attributes to its supplemental benefit program. Although salary is paid for by Initial Security, the Alliance pays for up to 60 credits of college tuition at nearby Borough of Manhattan Community College on Chambers St. and provides its guards with free MetroCards. “These are incentives that keep the guards with us longer,” Armstrong said.

Last month, the New York State legislature quietly passed a bill called Security Training Tax Credit Act that would give property owners a maximum $3,000 tax credit per year for raising the wages and increasing the training of their unionized security guards. The governor is expected to act on the bill imminently, although, like the training program launched this spring, it would do little for the legions of non-unionized guards patrolling the city’s private property.


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