Let Your Fingers Do the Talking

Hiring new school employees in Florida is faster thanks to a new statewide digital fingerprinting system.

by / April 22, 2003
Not long ago, getting a job at a Florida school was a time-consuming process. Even the most promising applicants waited up to two and a half months for the results of mandatory fingerprint checks.

Though most applicants understood the importance of protecting children from criminals, the long wait often required them to seek alternate employment. The process has changed dramatically.

A Better Way
Last year, the Florida Department of Education issued an RFP for an automated fingerprint identification-based applicant processing system for all state education employees and insurance workers, who also are required to undergo fingerprinting before working for the state. Following a competitive bidding process, the state awarded a five-year, $8 million contract to Lockheed Martin Information Systems.

Last spring, Florida's 67 counties received fingerprint scanning equipment, software and training and began processing the fingerprints of the 250,000 annual job applicants to Florida's education system and insurance industry.

An Outdated Process
In the past, capturing and checking an applicant's fingerprints was an arduous process. First, an applicant was sent to a local sheriff's department to ink their fingerprints on a paper card. The applicant would then take the card to the school district, and the district would send it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for a check against the state database.

Assuming there were no matches at the state level, the card was mailed to the FBI. The FBI would send the paper card to its card scanning service, and the print would be digitized. The FBI would then scan for matches against its database, generate a printed response and mail it back to the school.

If prints were unreadable, the card would be returned to the school and the process would begin again.

"Typically, it would take two and a half months for the response to come back because of the amount of manual processes involved," said Steven Otsuki, vice president of Information Technology and Identification Solutions at Lockheed Martin.

The wait was so long that schools hired applicants before learning the results of fingerprint checks, said Kathie Sills, director of human resources at Orange County Public Schools.

"The school districts would employ individuals contingent upon the results," she said. "But if the results were not favorable, they might have to terminate an employee after they had already been working for weeks or months. It's very disruptive to schools and work locations to have someone there one day and gone the next, not to mention the safety issues involved."

The New Way
Today, applicants' fingerprints are scanned the same day they apply for a job. Applicants pay a fee for the scan. They are instructed to arrive with a money order in hand, or arrange payment over the phone or the Internet while in the office.

In approximately 6 to 8 minutes, a state employee scans the applicant's fingerprints. The system highlights poor quality fingerprint scans, allowing operators to rescan poor prints immediately. The digital prints are forwarded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and FBI electronically. In some cases, the FBI responds within 48 hours. In the majority of cases, it's closer to 24 hours.

"The school district and the applicant know quickly whether they can proceed," Otsuki said. "That means the new teacher, the new school bus driver, the new teacher's aid, etc., can be in the classroom within days instead of months."

Orange County Public Schools' two fingerprinting workstations are used almost constantly, Sills said.

"We're a very large district, and we have a lot of employees to fingerprint," she continued. "We also fingerprint contracted labor and other folks that have contact with our students. The workstations are kept busy virtually all day long taking the fingerprints and transmitting data."

There are many times when results are received in the afternoon from applicants who had fingerprinting done in the morning, said Letty Lohman, senior manager of employment services at Orange County Public Schools.

"That's very meaningful because these folks are waiting to work their first day in a school," she said. "The school may have had a position vacant, so they are anxious to get a teacher or a paraprofessional in the classroom. We get results so quickly that it keeps the employment process going."

Easy and Safe
The software being used in Florida is based on a system Lockheed Martin originally developed for the FBI. Lockheed also developed a "store and forward capability" to store digital prints, forward them to the end recipient, and conduct various accounting and financial tracking functions. The fingerprint scanning hardware was developed by Integrated Biometric Technology.

Lockheed Martin runs the system for the state on a transaction fee basis.

"The state did not want to have to procure the hardware and software or find employees who could handle maintenance of the system," Otsuki said. "We provide the software, the hardware and the maintenance, and we recover that cost via the transaction fee that's charged to the applicant."

Lockheed Martin also reimburses the school for taking the actual prints, providing the school district with additional revenue.

Since the onset of the contract, Florida has processed more than 70,000 applicants electronically.

"This equipment has been a godsend because we can ensure that everyone's cleared before they start, and it's not disruptive to any school or work location," Sills said. "Plus, as a parent, you can feel assured that those staff members your child is coming in contact with have passed the background check."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer