ATF agents get Web portal access

Officials say the new portal should eliminate delays in sending info back to headquarters

Three years ago, agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were having trouble relaying critical information from crime scenes to headquarters in a timely fashion. That made it difficult for ATF teams to coordinate their activities.

In crisis situations, “we’ve got a team on the ground that starts collecting information [at a site] and putting leads together,” said Larry Bell, deputy chief information officer at ATF. But “it took over 24 hours to get a link back to headquarters once an incident was under way.”

The ability to quickly establish a communications link between agents in the field and officials at headquarters became one of the agency’s highest priorities, Bell said. Previously, agents had only store-and-forward capabilities." They would store data in a laptop database and then pump it [back to headquarters]. We were looking for something more instant.”

As a solution to the communications problem, ATF established a secure Web portal that will serve a variety of communities of interest within the agency.

The bomb data center, for example, is responsible for recording all incidents involving explosives that occur in the United States.

Through the secure portal, agents will be able to quickly access the system they use to record explosives incidents and share that information with bomb centers worldwide. “It’s a robust system that has several search engines in it,” said Hugo Barrera, deputy assistant director at ATF’s Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information.

Officials said the collaboration portal should eliminate the need for ATF field agents to set up secure operations centers at schools, armories or hotels, for example. In the past, it would typically take agents at least a day to establish secure cabling connections so they could communicate with headquarters officials.

“One of the key things was to be able to interoperate and communicate with each other,” Bell said. “BEA Systems’ portal product fit our needs. In addition, we also leveraged the iPass wireless card and services.”

Each agent is slated to receive a tablet PC with an iPass card. “The card will work on anyone’s system, even outside the U.S.,” Bell said. “We have agents in Iraq and Thailand using it. Our agents have the same access to the system anywhere through the portal.”

ATF has 1,500 accounts on the portal and will add another 1,000 this month, Bell said. By next year, all ATF agents will have accounts that give them access to the portal.

“Before, we weren’t able to be secure,” Barrera said. “We would go somewhere, like the middle of a community, and it would take time for servers to connect. We saw a real need from the [agents] on the street. With this system, I think we’re 21st century now.”

Chandler is an intern at 1105 Government Information Group.

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