Many of the nation’s local police or fire chiefs, if asked about their department’s progress toward compliance with Federal Information Processing Standard 201 (FIPS 201), probably would reply with a question of their own:  “What is FIPS 201?”

The Federal Information Processing Standard 201 was established to meet a requirement created by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12) – which, among many other things, requires that a common identification standard for federal employees and contractors be established; however, HSPD-12 does not even mention a requirement for state and local compliance.

Two years after issuance of HSPD-12, not even the federal government has come close to full compliance with this generally unfunded mandate. One reason for the seeming lack of progress is that there has been a backlog in completion of the background investigations of many of the personnel required to be included in the program. The delay is believed to have been caused by certain difficulties in an OPM (Office of Personnel Management) program being used in some aspects of the investigations. There has been some funding provided through the General Services Administration to implement a few of the HSPD-12 requirements, though. Moreover, it is understandable in any case that any standard affecting the entire federal government is likely to be cumbersome in at least some aspects of the implementation process.

Verifying the Verifications, and Other Problems

A second question that might be asked of state and local officials is if their agencies might benefit from a compliance program similar to FIPS 201, even if the agencies under their jurisdiction are not specifically required to comply with the FIPS 201 requirements. Here the answer probably would be a positive “Yes.”

The rationale for such an affirmative answer is that, throughout the world, terrorist groups have on many occasions sought to exploit emergency-services response agencies as targets for attack. In fact, some terrorists have gone to extremes to impersonate emergency services personnel (and even to obtain what seem to be emergency-response vehicles) in order to gain close access to first responders at the scene of a major accident or incident. In most cases, unfortunately, there is currently no effective way to ensure that responders from various mutual-aid jurisdictions are really who they say they are. Adding to this problem is the fact that many of these jurisdictions have formed compacts with private-sector ambulance companies guaranteeing that the latter will be available as a resource in reserve that can be used in dealing with mass-casualty situations.

If verification of credentials is requested, as it should be in such situations, it still would be difficult to ensure that such verification is honest, complete, and accurate. The unfortunate reality, in fact, is that most if not all state-issued driver’s licenses incorporate greater security safeguards than are included on agency- or company-issued credentials.

Since the implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the increasing reliance on emergency mutual-aid compacts (EMACs) to cope with major accidents – or “events,” as they also are called – incident commanders and staging-area coordinators have started to realize that they would greatly benefit from a process in which responders checking into an accident scene could produce a common identification card that carries not only the individual’s photograph but also relevant and recent information about the organization he or she represents, his or her level of training and areas of expertise, and clearances held – and, of course, certain counterfeiting safeguards. This requirement differs in many respects from the federal standard, which is geared to meet facility-access requirements. However, extrapolated out to meet incident-command needs it becomes intriguing.

Federal Funding a Mandatory Pre-Condition

One example of how such an enhanced credentials requirement might be used is a situation in which an incident commander makes an EMAC request from a neighboring state for a hazardous materials technician who is an expert on radiation. When that person reports in, the incident commander would be able to quickly verify that he or she is actually the person who had been requested. The enhanced credentials system also could help local authorities track personnel on the scene and verify their assignments as well as their present geographical locations.

There undoubtedly would be some administrative and/or funding problems that would have to be resolved in developing and implementing a FIPS 201 compliance system at the state and/or local levels. As the delays in the federal program have demonstrated, carrying out all of the background investigations required is a cumbersome task, and the same task probably would be more difficult at the state and local levels of government. Even now in many jurisdictions, fire departments equipped with different communications systems cannot talk to one another. The funding issue also could be a major stumbling block. In fact, if federal funding does not become available it can almost be guaranteed that a state and local NIMS compliance system will not be implemented.

Here it should be noted that the DHS Office of National Capital Region Coordination is working toward accomplishing the broader objective of meeting a universal emergency services identification requirement. Again, though, because dedicated funding is not available, the process continues to move slowly. Nonetheless, most if not all of the federal, state, and local agencies involved in NIMS operations are conceptually very interested in the development and issuance of a common, quickly recognizable, and easily verified identification card.

Joseph Watson

Sergeant Joseph Watson is a former Marine Military Police Officer and 25 year veteran of the City of Alexandria Police Department. He is currently team leader for the Department’s Special Operations Division, Community Support Section Homeland Security Unit. Watson is the founder and President of Special Operations Solutions, LLC. Consulting, Planning, Training, Exercises, and Operations. He is also a trainer in Basic and Advanced Special Operations, Firearms, Defensive Tactics, ODP Awareness, and Hazardous Materials. He was the recipient of the 2002 Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments, Chiefs Training Committee, Instructor of the Year award.

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