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Security industry called beset by low pay, training

Richard Bergendahl said he thinks: 'What am I doing here? These people are paying me minimum wage.' Richard Bergendahl said he thinks: "What am I doing here? These people are paying me minimum wage." (Damian Dovargane/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- Richard Bergendahl fights the war on terrorism in Los Angeles for $19,000 a year, one of the legions of ill-trained, low-paid private security guards protecting tempting terrorist targets. Down the block from Bergendahl's post is an even taller skyscraper identified by President Bush as the target for a Sept. 11-style airplane attack.

Bergendahl, 55, says he often thinks: "Well, what am I doing here? These people are paying me minimum wage."

The security guard industry found itself involuntarily transformed after September 2001, from an army of "rent-a-cops" to protectors of the homeland. Yet many security officers are paid little more than restaurant cooks or janitors.

And the industry is governed by a maze of conflicting state rules, according to a nationwide survey by the Associated Press. Wide chasms exist among states in requirements for training and background checks. A New Jersey Democratic congressman, Robert Andrews, said he's confident that lawmakers will support a bill he sponsored to require criminal background checks for all US security guards.

"How much is it worth not to have one criminal guarding a nuclear power plant?" he asked.

Andrews said the checks will have the effect of raising pay, because they will weed out many guards whose criminal histories lead them to accept the low salaries. "This is one area where doing things on the cheap is a really bad idea," Andrews said.

"A security officer is . . . not trained to be a G.I. Joe," said Paul Maniscalco, a research scientist at George Washington University.

Maniscalco is helping to change the security guard culture. He developed an antiterrorism computer course for shopping mall guards .

The average pay for security officers in 2006 was $23,620, according to a Labor Department survey.

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