MONTPELIER -- State officials and legislators have taken the first steps to increase Statehouse security.
The "capital complex security working group" held its first session Tuesday morning. A private firm has assessed the security infrastructure already in place and discussed ways to improve safety protocol.
The working group is chaired by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and includes lawmakers, representatives from the Department of Buildings and General Services, Sergeant at Arms Francis Brooks and Capitol Police Chief Les Dimick.
The goal, Scott said, is to improve communication among security teams in different buildings, and to establish safety protocols within the Statehouse.
"We want a broader, more global approach to security in the capital complex," Scott said.
The state has hired the national firm of Margolis Healy & Associates, which specializes in campus security for colleges and universities, to assess the state's security measures.
Dan Pascale, senior director of security and emergency management for Margolis Healy & Associates, presented the firm's timeline and approach to recommendations for the security of the complex, which includes the state Supreme Court, the Statehouse and the Governor's Office.
"We'll be looking at what are likely threats you might be facing and how to mitigate those," Pascale said. "From the - God forbid - violent intruder to the good old severe weather storm, which is more likely to affect you guys.
After the meeting, Margolis Healy representatives began interviews, toured the building and began researching the history and uses of the Statehouse which will be considered in the security firm's recommendations.
Mike Obuchowski, commissioner of Buildings and General Services, said state law prohibits the Statehouse doors from being locked when the Legislature is in session.
"It's a balance," Pascale said. "What is modern and what is reasonable? Sometimes it's as easy as a $35 'tensabarrier'," he added, referring to the belt lines used in airports.
Pascale said the firm will research security in other states and propose, when possible, simple and practical measures. The firm will work into the fall and meet again with the working group after Labor Day.
Last session, the Legislature authorized $250,000 - including $65,000 for consultant services for Margolis Healy - and approved money for wiring and updating the intercom and alarm system.
The General Assembly will have to approve any expenditures recommended by Margolis Healy in 2015.
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said the "wake-up call" occurred when a panic alarm went off as a Vermont Supreme Court justice entered the building from one side door and a group of fourth-graders came in through another. The technology wasn't up to date and protocol was not widely known, she said.
Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, said legislators generally ignore alarms.
In the past year, Dimick could recall one security incident, when a visitor to a House hearing started reading a document aloud. The man complied when Capitol police asked him to leave.
Dimick said he's been pushing for more staff for years. Currently, he has three full-time staff and three more working part-time when the Legislature is in session.
With separate security staff for the Statehouse, the grounds, and the Supreme Court next door, efficiency and communication are less than optimal, the working group agreed. The valuable paintings and history in the 1859 Statehouse building need to be protected, too, Emmons said.
Weapons are prohibited in the Statehouse but no metal detectors or screening stations are used.
For years, Scott said, "I resisted changes to security because I wanted to keep things transparent and keep the People's House the People's House. We need to be sure we don't lose this in the process. But we need to be sure to keep the people who work here, and visitors, safe."
The Statehouse attracts a million visitors a year. It is the No. 1 physical attraction in Vermont, Flory said.
On sunny days, couples or young families stake out spots on the lawn and ultimate Frisbee players organize games in the evening. The building is always open to visitors, and staff offer tours year round. That's something legislators said they want to keep.
But, Scott said, the initiative comes as part of "a realization of a changing world." It's a pragmatic response to the nationally publicized shootings and bombings that have occurred in the past few years, he said.
"We want to be proactive and realistic," he said.