Data to go
ATF gives field agents 'mobile workplace'
A field agent trying to defuse a bomb has no time to hurry back to the office and look up details about the explosive in question.
So the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has set up a mobile workplace, not only for bomb technicians but for 460 inspectors and 1,600 agents. All of them have notebook computers with DVDs full of explosives data and other information they might need on the fly.
'You want employees to be mobile, out doing inspections, not sitting in the office trying to find the right guidance,' said David Chipman, chief of the policy development and evaluation branch at ATF.
The agency has developed a reference DVD that brings together regulations, electronic forms, policies, an employee phone directory, and a database on weapons and explosives.
ATF has a long history of mobile computing. As early as 1997, the agency awarded to Unisys Corp. a seat management contract that included notebook PCs. The year after, ATF's Office of Field Operations contracted with ITA Inc. of Springfield, Va., to produce CD-ROMs of federal and bureau regulations.
Aside from bomb data, agency personnel must keep abreast of long-standing policies, briefs that indicate policy changes, memos about new issues, and other federal regulations and laws.
'It was very difficult to know if a directive ruled a particular situation, or a policy memo or brief. We had all this paper and no way to query it,' Chipman said.
Posting the wealth of information online would be useless to an agent in a remote locale with a slow network connection or none at all. CDs proved to be a better choice for electronic dissemination.
Every four months or so, each agent gets a new disk with the latest information. In each run, ATF produces about 3,800 password-protected disks.
As agents began to rely more on the disks, other information was added, such as databases of ballistic shells and types of explosives.
'There are thousands of different commercial and military explosives,' Chipman said. 'The first thing explosives specialists want to understand is what they are dealing with.' So the database includes not only product names of the thousands of types of explosives but pictures and markings as well.
'You can pretty quickly identify what you are dealing with, and that makes for a safer situation,' Chipman said.
Field users with desktop computers also can consult the data disk through a portal with a directory and a search engine.
As the agency switched from CDs to DVDs, ITA added more information such as video clips and tutorials.
For each new version of the disk, ATF supplies the company with materials in both electronic and printed form. Other material, such as federal regulations, ITA must dig up itself.
Once ATF had standardized its notebooks, the vendor could count on each user having the same basic set of supporting applications, such as Apple QuickTime for videos, said Michael Anderson, an ITA senior product manager.
The agency's current notebook platform is a Dell Inc. model with a DVD drive, 256M of RAM and Microsoft Windows 2000.
ITA built a Microsoft Access database for the agency's phone list.
A custom front end lets users not only search for a specific number but also conduct more general searches, such as finding an expert in a specific area. 'We designed our product to the agency's equipment,' Anderson said.