TODAY’S state of the nation address of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will be different from the previous years in terms of the stringent security arrangements in and out of the sprawling16-hectare Batasang Pambansa complex.

“We are trying to be more focused on security after the bomb blast last year. Unlike before when it was easy to get in, we’re now trying to be a little bit more strict. And we will have reserved seating at the session hall,” explains Marilyn Barua-Yap, secretary general of the House of Representatives.

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Every fourth Monday of July, the President addresses a joint session of the Senate and the House to signal the opening of a regular session.

The Senate and the House of the 14th Congress will separately convene at 10 a.m. to open their second regular session. At 4 p.m., the President will deliver her SONA, usually a report to the nation of her accomplishments and an enumeration of her plans and the things she wants Congress to deliver.

For the first time in many years, security guards from a private security agency (also called blue guards) are all over the House, complementing the civilian Legislative Security Bureau (LSB) and the Special Action Force (SAF) contingent from the Philippine National Police.

Additional closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras had been installed in strategic places around the building and its premises. Security desks were put in place to screen the persons entering the House, according to Yap.

House security officials had a walk-through of Arroyo’s route from the time she disembarks from her helicopter or car at the rear entrance, to the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO) where she will wait until 4 p.m. to deliver her speech.

During the weekend, the House rolled down the red carpet for Arroyo.

Last-minute security checks, including the functioning of x-ray machines at the entrances, and a mobile x-ray equipment that can detect suspicious items in a vehicle one or two meters away, were tested for today’s big event.

Yap said House officials are taking all means to prevent untoward occurrences during the SONA. “We would rather err on the side of caution,” Yap says.

Every seat at the plenary hall, even those on the third gallery that used to be reserved for the public, had been accounted for.

“We asked for the names of guests of the (House) members and these were all in by Wednesday (July 23). Security will check each person coming in, unlike before when a congressmen would just ask for three or four invitations and we just give them. Now, we have to get their names so that we know who is sitting where,” Yap explains.

Not all employees of the House can come in. Only those designated to be on duty will be allowed entry. And even those on duty for the morning session can be allowed to stay put for the SONA event if his/her services are not needed.

“By noon, the entrance will be shut down. Only those holding invitations or media accreditation will be allowed to come in. Movements, even by the media, will be restricted to their designated areas,” Yap says.

Personal bodyguards of congressmen and senators will be subject to the same rigid screening that ordinary persons go through. Their names will also be taken down “so that whatever happens to them, we have their profile,” says Yap.

The hallways where the President will pass going to the plenary hall will be cleared an hour before she arrives, and the number of Congress members in her entourage will be limited to those designated in the welcoming committee.

“We will try to make it a more dignified event as it should be,” Yap says.

Members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) normally take control of security measures inside the premises while contingents from the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines handle security concerns outside the Batasan complex.

The PNP National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) earlier said it will deploy 7,000 policemen outside the Batasang Pambansa and along the roads leading to the legislative complex, particularly on Commonwealth Avenue where militant groups will hold protest rallies.

Early this month, the House of Representatives engaged the services of CORE Watchmen, Security and Detective Agency Corp. for the deployment of 60 “blue guards” for a six-month “trial run” until December.

Artemio Adasa Jr., House secretary general for operations and chairman of the chamber’s Bids and Awards Committee, would not say the contract price for the security guards. They man the Batasan gates, and entrances to the buildings. Others are assigned to secure the four-story Mitra building, the three-story main building and the six-story North and South Wing buildings.

For sure, he said, the House is “observing the PADPAO (Philippine Association of Detective and Protective Agency Operators, Inc.) rates.”

A check on the Internet showed the PADPAO rates go for an average of P20, 182 a month, inclusive of agency fee, taxes and insurance premium, for a security guard. At this amount, the monthly bill for 60 ‘blue guards’ would cost P1.2 million, or almost P7.3 million for the six-month ‘trial run” of their services.

Defending the hiring of private security guards, Yap says this was meant to complement the LSB and the PNP’s SAF.

“Our LSB are like ordinary civil servants. They have no security training, not licensed and not authorized to carry firearms. On the other hand, the SAF are highly trained for something else. Previously, the LSB and PNP had some kind of a modus vivendi where the PNP takes care of tougher security work,” explains Yap.

The idea is to eventually form a “congressional police force” composed of licensed security officers to take full charge of securing the House.

So far, she says the security guards have shown to be effective in apprehending pilferers who enter the complex through the perimeter fence.

“If by December their performance is okay, then we may consider extending (the services). But we also have to consider the response of the congressmen kasi may trust level d’yan na involved,” the first woman head of the House secretariat says.

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