DHS, DOD solving first responder ID card interoperability problem

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The departments of Defense and Homeland Security are making sure first responders are never again stopped a mile from the Pentagon and forced to walk to a disaster.

That is what happened to one key federal anti-terrorism official after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A Virginia State trooper stopped the official as he was trying to fulfill on-site responsibilities at the Pentagon. “He had to walk the rest of the way,” Craig Wilson, a smartcard expert with the Department of Homeland Security, said on July 20.

Officials are hoping to minimize such difficulties through the use of a First Responder Authentication Credentials (FRAC) identification card, which was a key component in the July 19 Summer Breeze Exercise. The FRAC card is encoded with critical data that lets commanders at the scene authenticate the responder’s credentials using a wireless handheld device.

On Sept. 11, 2001, breakdowns in coordination and communication hindered the response to the attacks on the Pentagon. First responders responsible for incident command struggled in their attempts to ensure that all credentialed responders could gain access to the site.

The Summer Breeze exercises demonstrated that use of the FRAC made for quicker ID checks than the traditional visual identification method, Wilson said July 20 during a briefing on the exercise at the Government Smart Card Interagency Advisory Board meeting in Washington.

“We demonstrated the ability to have a real-time display for situational awareness,” Wilson said, “so that we know who’s on the scene, what’s happening on the scene, and whether we have the right people in the right places.”

At George Mason University, which served as one of the Summer Breeze sites, participants carried out an evacuation exercise appropriate for situation such as the shootings at Virginia Tech. There also was a large-scale relocation exercises, including one where pilots were given only 15 minutes notice to fly to a different staging area.

“That went very well,” Wilson said.

Overall, Summer Breeze received a big thumbs up from officials, who are impressed with the role that smart cards can play in a crisis.

“We had very senior leaders watching this process -- they were very pleased with what they saw,” Wilson said.

This was the second interoperability exercise DOD and DHS ran for first responders. Last year, the departments conducted Winter Fox, which also tested interoperability of different smart ID cards.

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