ATF's database fires four barrels

'Once we have that information we can relate entities within the database. We can relate an individual to a vehicle or one person to another. We are truly exploiting the relational capability of the database.'

'ATF's William Temple

Olivier Douliery

Agency integrates systems it uses for analysis, investigations, regs and text management

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has built a case management database that relies on four systems developed to integrate information used for criminal investigations, regulatory activities, intelligence analysis and text management.

In creating its case management system, ATF received favorable comments from the Justice Department's inspector general, which contrasted the FBI's problems in building a replacement for the antiquated Automated Case Management System.

The bureau and its 5,100 employees soon will move to Justice from the Treasury Department under a provision of the Homeland Security Act signed into law last year.

As it does, ATF will bring its missions of enforcing federal firearms laws, conducting investigations of explosives cases and regulating the tobacco and alcohol industries.

The system that ties much of the bureau's information together is called N-Focis, for National Field Office Case Information System. It has four parts:
  • N-Force, which supports the agency's criminal law enforcement activities, including investigations of firearms law violations, weapons smuggling and interagency task force projects

  • N-Spect, which manages records for regulatory case enforcement

  • N-Quire, which is built on N-Force and serves as an intelligence analytical tool for major investigations and to provide management information to command posts

  • TMS, a text management system designed to search for text strings within the other databases and, eventually, to hold audio and video files.

'The overall concept behind this is a centralized database where information is stored and can be queried or manipulated by anyone with authorization,' said William Temple, special agent and program manager for N-Force in the Software Management Branch of the Information Services Division.

Nationwide connections

The system has about 4,900 users within the agency. N-FocIs uses Sun Microsystems Inc. servers running an Oracle8 Release 8.1.7 database under Sun Solaris, Temple said.

The system is connected to ATF field offices nationwide via the agency's WAN, he said.

N-Focis now is a client-server system with a front end built in Powerbuilder 7.0 from Sybase Inc.

'As long as you have access to the application' you have access to all its components, Temple said. 'We are not setting up a stovepiped system. The investigation is being managed and data is entered when events occur. That information is available to all people who participate in an investigation.'

The data in N-Force is broken down into categories such as individuals, locations, defendant information, investigation participants, vehicles and other evidence, Temple said. 'N-Quire expands on that by adding financial information such as credit card data,' he said.

'Once we have that information, we can relate entities within the database,' Temple said. 'We can relate an individual to a vehicle or one person to another. We are truly exploiting the relational capability of the database.'

The system also automates the business processes of an investigation to eliminate steps that ATF agents formerly performed manually, Temple said.

ATF has integrated the N-Focis subsystems with other systems inside the bureau, such as those at its Firearms Tracing Center, which operates the National Instacheck System for performing background checks of gun purchasers by licensed dealers. The instant background check system is linked to the FBI's National Crime Information Center.

Arson and bombing

The bureau also has linked N-Focis with its Arson Explosives National Repository, which uses an Oracle8 database management system running on Sun Fire 6800 servers to look for similarities among arson and bombing events.

Alden Fry, an ATF agent and program manager for N-Focis, said the bureau is working to integrate N-Focis with its database of assets seized in forfeiture actions, with its laboratory information management system and its automated electronic vault system. The new vault system will use bar codes to keep track of the evidence that the bureau keeps in secure storage.

Michael Park, chief of the Field Operations Section of the Software Management Branch, said, 'We are starting planning for a Web-enabled version' of N-Focis.

The bureau has spent about $12 million on N-Focis since 1997, according to agents who work with the system. The agency's main contractor for the work is PEC Solutions Inc. of Fairfax, Va.

ATF already has implemented N-Force 2.0 and has allocated funds for Version 3.0, which focuses on property system upgrades and is scheduled for completion this summer. N-Force 4.0 is being designed to provide Web capabilities, with a front end built in Java.

Bureau IT specialists say they have worked to keep the N-Focis project on track by building it in a modular fashion.

The FBI, by contrast, is building a more ambitious upgrade that was budgeted at $379 million and is intended to provide a multimedia desktop PC to almost every FBI agent.

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