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Lightening the Load for Rescue Teams

THE FBI’S Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), the nation’s elite law enforcement tactical team, is responsible for rescuing U.S. citizens and others who are being held illegally. The team is expected to get anywhere in the world in a short amount of time, and each of its members must carry a considerable amount of equipment to assignments. Anything that can lighten that load may help to improve team performance.

Case in point: The HRT has to lug heavy, ruggedized, unwieldy laptops to perform mobile collection of biometric and identity information. To lessen that burden, the FBI requested that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) develop specifications for a biometric capture application called the Quick Capture Platform (QCP), which can run on a more convenient device than a laptop.

The NIST Visualization and Usability Group did not head to Iraq or Afghanistan to watch the HRT in action, but they did spend time with team members in all of their gear performing day-to-day duties so that they could get an idea of what was needed.

“What we observed was that not only was this cumbersome from the heavy laptop perspective, but they also had a number of screens to go through [in the interface], and they were using a mouse technology, and they had a lot of typing to do. Well, when you’ve got a lot of gear on and you’re working at night, and you’ve got gloves and all this other stuff, going through all these screens is very difficult,” says NIST group member and computer scientist Mary Theofanos.

She adds that it was both a physical and a cognitive overload for HRT members. “You’ve got to think about a lot of things. And the screens all changed, each screen was very different, they were not similar in any way.”

So the NIST researchers decided not only to shrink the interface into something that would fit well on a 3-by-5 inch device but also to change the interface so that it was more congruous and easier for the team members to get through. The researchers reduced the number of screens that team members had to flip through and minimized the data entry required.

To get to the end product, NIST worked with the HRT to have members review the various specifications and ensure that they were acceptable. The screens needed to retain entry points for critical data, like name, alias, and date of birth. The specifications also provide an easy way for HRT members to take photographs and to save fingerprint information (though a separate device captures the fingerprint information). But other options in the old interface tended to be superfluous, so they no longer needed to be taking up space on the screen.

“Because it’s a touchscreen, we made sure that all of the most commonly used touch areas were on the periphery of the touch area where they’re easy to reach. We grouped similar functions into similar areas, so going from screen to screen, the user would know where to look for the information and where they can touch to have similar action,” says Brian Stanton, a NIST cognitive scientist who worked on QCP.

Stanton and Theofanos say that the HRT is not the only group interested in the software; they’ve also received interest in the specifications from other government agencies that use mobile identification and biometric technology. For example, the Department of Homeland Security might use the QCP system for portable border checks. The U.S. Coast Guard and state and local agencies might also be able to benefit from the new platform.

Now that the FBI has the NIST specifications, the department has put out a request for proposals to build an appropriate device, says Stanton. Both he and Theofanos are optimistic that such a device will be built using their group’s specifications.

Theofanos says that she would like to see the fingerprint capture devices shrink as well, further cutting down on what HRT members and others have to carry in the field. “Right now, [fingerprint capture devices] are also kind of big and bulky, at least for the ten-print. And so, now that the [mobile ID] device is going to be much smaller, it would be nice if the hardware devices could be smaller,” she says. NIST is currently working on incorporating fingerprint scanners onto the mobile ID device itself.