Ask Tim
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By Ann P. Schreiber

Quick Read

  • To become an electronics technician with the FBI, candidates must have a two-year associate’s degree or the military equivalent.
  • Good verbal communications skills are a critical part of the technician’s job.
  • Technicians receive Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certified tower-climbing training.

In an instant, we are connected … by e-mail, cell phone, radio and camera.

In an instant, we are communicating … through electronic systems that would have boggled the mind just 20, even 10 years ago. And in an instant, we can be disconnected.

Imagine being with a law enforcement agency and suddenly becoming disconnected. Imagine that the law enforcement agency is the FBI. Imagine that it’s your job to keep things working.

Responsibility, stress and long hours

“Working for the bureau is very hard, very busy. There’s no such thing as down time,” explains Matthew R. Barthel, an FBI electronics technician in Chicago. “It’s not like you can say, ‘We’re over the bad-guy season, now we can catch up on paperwork.’ Bad guys never rest. If they’re doing something, that means I’ve got to do something to support a mission.”

While a student at Sauk Rapids (Minn.) High School, Barthel dreamed of working for the FBI. He did so well he actually served two years helping to teach his class. He went on to Ridgewater College in Willmer, Minn., where he earned an associate’s degree in wireless communications. In college, Barthel was elected vice president of the SkillsUSA chapter his first year and president the second.

Barthel’s enthusiasm for his work is apparent. He speaks of the responsibilities, the stress and the long hours with an accepting tone. “I work for a law enforcement agency where I can benefit the United States of America,” he says with pride. “Where else can I go and have fun and have this kind of job satisfaction?”

Did he just say ‘fun’?

There is a level of fun for these electronics technicians (ETs) who love working on equipment and love working with the people who use it. There’s the diversity of the day-to-day duties, and there’s the scenery. On any given day, an ET may be setting up remote communications with a SWAT team, making adjustments to a tower atop a skyscraper, or working on equipment on a tropical Pacific island.

Burrel O. Smither Jr., a telecommunications manager in Indianapolis, mirrors Barthel’s enthusiasm. “I’ve been with the FBI for 16 years. I don’t look at my work as being drudgery type of work,’ he says. “I look at it as being an adventure: to go to work, to build, to design systems, to install electronic equipment, to have an enjoyable job for the rest of my life.”

In 1979, Smither graduated from Franklin (Ind.) Community High School and Central Nine Vocational Technical School in Greenwood, Ind. He went on to earn an associate’s degree from International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) Tech in Indianapolis in 1981.

At Central Nine, Smither was a member of SkillsUSA. It was in his local TV repair contest that he learned to look for the obvious when troubleshooting.

“When that happened, it kind of hit you — because, man, you always feel like our country’s untouchable, we’re indestructible.”

“I used to take things for granted,” he says. But although the TV he was checking “looked hooked up, it wasn’t. It took me some time to discover this, and as a result, I didn’t place very high. But I learned how contests work. I learned how to repair televisions. I have used a lot of those repair techniques.”

Right there on the scene

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a lot of people today don’t take anything for granted. But not many know about the support the ETs offered at the crime scenes.

In New York, at the Pentagon and at the airliner crash site in Pennsylvania, more than 100 ETs provided around-the-clock coverage. They set up command posts, electronic access badge systems and video surveillance cameras. They installed local area networks (LANs) and coordinated wireless communications. Everyone within a 10-hour drive of these sites was pulled in, since flights were restricted.

“I was there in New York, right after it happened,” Barthel says. “I think it changed my outlook on my job because I’ve become more dedicated. I’ve always cared about what I do, and I work very hard. When that happened, it kind of hit you — because, man, you always feel like our country’s untouchable, we’re indestructible. Since then, I’ve been a lot more willing to sacrifice personal free time to get things done.”

He and another ET from the Chicago office went to New York for a couple of weeks to help set up communications. “We worked some pretty long shifts,” Barthel recalls. “When stuff like that happens and they lose communications, that’s when we really shine. That’s when you see guys who do my job pull together and pull resources out of God knows where to get everything done. We had people from all over the nation out there in New York help to get them up and running so they can investigate.”

We’ve all heard a lot about the renewed sense of patriotism since the attacks, but the FBI has had some unique experiences.

“We’re expecting a significant enhancement on the number of electronic technicians positions in the next fiscal year,” says G. Andrew Scott, who recruits the bureau’s electronics technicians. “It’s reasonable to think that it’s a result of 9-11. I’ve seen a significant increase in interest since 9-11.

“The phone calls I got were fascinating. We had large-company employees, people with engineering skills and technical skills, who called us up and said, ‘Use us. Whatever we can do, just let us know.’ This was certainly appreciated, but to coordinate something like that — because you’ve got unknown capabilities and all — that was almost impossible.

“Fortunately, we had the equipment the machinery and the people trained and in place to deal with it. It was an extraordinary effort. And it was very gratifying to see so many people wanting to contribute.”

Could you meet the FBI’s standards?

FBI recruiter G. Andrew Scott, the electronics technician program manager, says he looks for:

  • A solid technical foundation and education — if possible, demonstrated ability in information technology, telecommunications and electronics

  • Willingness to relocate and commitment to at least one year of service

  • Self-starters with writing and communications skills

  • Grade point average of 3.0 or higher. If exceptional in other ways — say, in interpersonal communication skills or a recommendation from an instructor —there may be a compromise on the grade requirement

Of course, the FBI requires an extensive background search. “The background investigation is there because the individuals are going to be entrusted with national security information,” Scott says. Such checks “are things that keep us all safe. It is not a cold or inhuman process.”

Other FBI requirements include:

  • U.S. citizenship

  • Four years of military service or a two-year associate’s degree

  • No marijuana use within the last three years and not more than 15 times ever. No use of other illegal drugs in the last 10 years or more than five times ever

  • Good credit — if not, you must demonstrate how you’re acting responsibly to repay your debts

And there’s a polygraph test. “It’s better to have one person in 100 whom you should have accepted, rather than having one person in 100 whom you should not have accepted, again because of national security concerns,” Scott explains.

What they do: Electronics technicians and telecommunications managers

I’m an electronics technician, and we do everything,” Matthew Barthel says. “It varies from office to office, but the biggest part of my position with the FBI is taking care of radio communications. We have our own radio system that’s maintained by our own technicians for security reasons. It’s all encoded so ‘Joe Blow’ on his scanner can’t listen in on our conversations.”

Adapting systems for field communications is also on the list of duties. “When our SWAT teams go out, sometimes there will be an ET with them. They need communication. They need the radios fixed on site to make sure that everyone can talk. A huge part of our jobs is communications. If you can’t talk, you ain’t getting nothing done,” Barthel stresses. “We also install all the alarm systems. We get the space, we design how [the equipment] is going to go in. We maintain it.”

Other duties for technicians like Barthel include installing and maintaining alarm systems and the wide area networks (WANs) and the local area networks (LANs) for the bureau.

“You know how the Internet works — We have something similar internally,” Barthel says. “It’s as high tech as the Internet, but not as complicated as the Internet. It’s all secure so that bad guys can’t tap in or listen to what we’re doing and spy on us.

“That’s pretty much everything that I can tell you about me. ETs don’t get too secretive. We do some stuff that gets crazy, and we don’t talk about it. All in all, we’re so busy with just regular maintenance of the office, keeping communications up. That’s our biggest thing, making sure people can talk, whether it be by your computer or by your radio.”

Telecommunications managers

“I supervise the electronics technician program,” says Burrel Smither, who oversees ETs like Barthel. “And we maintain all the radio communications for the FBI in the state of Indiana. We maintain the dispatch console. We maintain all the radio back-room equipment. We maintain all the bay stations throughout the whole state. We maintain all the repeater sites throughout the whole state.”

Repeater sites are towers that provide signals for cell phones, Smither explains. “And all the FBI facilities have bay stations, and they talk to those repeater sites allowing the use of mobile radios in cars and portable radios. We maintain, install and repair all that stuff.”

Smither worked for the Indiana State Police repairing radio equipment before starting with the FBI. At that time, the FBI took their equipment to the state police barracks for repairs. That’s how he learned about the electronics technician program.

Now he supervises five other ETs and is part of the hiring process. “I look for someone who’s pretty well-rounded,” he says. “You have those candidates who are ‘on fire.’ They’ve got the best academic grades you can get, but a lot of times they don’t have the abilities. You talk to them about the repairs they’ve done, and they haven’t done much hands-on, it’s been a lot of theory. I look for someone who has really good academic grades, plus I look for people who have the knack to do this type of work.”

According to Smither, the FBI, like a lot of other agencies and private industry, is looking for employees with electronics backgrounds.

“A person just can’t come in off the street and do that type of repair job,” he points out. “And you can’t just go to school and get all the theory. You have to have not only the theory, but the practical experience as well. And that’s where going to contests, learning how to repair things really helps you to be able to accomplish what you need to do.

“The FBI, the state police and all the others — Motorola, GE — every one of them is looking for personnel with electronics backgrounds. If you don’t go to school and you don’t get those skills, these corporations won’t be able to fill these positions. It’s a very needed education. And, it’s not an education that you can just get. It takes a lot of work.”

Above, recruiter Andrew Scott at the FBI’s high-tech facility near Washington, D.C. The bureau’s electronics technicians train for real-life situations with state-of-the-art equipment.

Inside the electronics training facility

The FBI’s electronics technicians train at a state-of-the-art facility outside the nation’s capital.

“The FBI is doing an enormous upgrade of our wide-area and local-area networks,” program manager Andrew Scott says. “So we have examples of all that technology here in the data communications lab, and we’ll teach the students how to work on it using a performance-based training model. We give them the theory of operation and how it works, and then we lead them through exercises.”

Students are expected to deal with problems independently, with their instructor’s guidance. Ultimately, they’re tested on these skills.

In the lab, fixed radio infrastructures (the real ones may be on a mountain, on top of a building or in an FBI facility) include elements of the wireless communications networks the bureau maintains.

Working on these systems “requires more in-depth skill than you would think,” Scott points out. “You’re not just taking your tool bag and going out and servicing this stuff. You might have to go out here and modify it or adapt it to meet a specific situation.”

After the Oklahoma City bombing, “they had communications resources there on site, but they were not sufficient to handle something of the magnitude of that investigative effort. The commercial systems, like the cell phones and the Nextel lines, they just locked up because they were not designed for that type of traffic. To make the FBI’s communications systems work for the situation, the ETs modify the equipment. They’ll change our infrastructure to make it do what it is that we need it to do. Those things are taught here.

“It’s a very effective method of training,” Scott adds. “When somebody leaves here we know they can do the job, or we know they can’t do the job.”

SkillsUSA and the FBI

There’s something about Matthew Barthel and Burrell Smither ... something that elicits trust. It’s a quality frequently found in SkillsUSA members. That quality was recognized by the FBI in the early 1980s.

“When you have the opportunity to meet a SkillsUSA member, you’re in for a special treat,” says Dan R. Young (pictured right), chief of the FBI’s Asset Management Unit. “These individuals are infectious with excitement and exhibit the values of which many corporations would be justly proud. It’s been my experience to meet and recruit many SkillsUSA men and women. My success has been the FBI’s success. These individuals have melded into the fabric of the agency, becoming productive workers with promising careers.”

In the post-Vietnam War era, FBI officials recognized the need for a national platform to recruit and hire technical staff. The exodus of trained technicians from the military was no longer there. Gone was the resource for recruiting highly skilled employees, Young explains.

“We had to think ahead: nationwide recruitment, identification of venues where we could go out and target highly skilled technical people possessing not only the technical skills but the high moral values, the good background, the dedication to the United States of America ... those are all part and parcel of what an FBI employee is. Just because you’re the best widget-maker in the world doesn’t mean you’re the best FBI employee.”

Instead of waiting for electronics technicians’ résumés to appear in the overall pool of applicants, the FBI’s Engineering and Research arm was given the go-ahead to directly recruit through the nationwide network of field offices. The agency began recruiting in schools such as International Telephone and Telegraph, Portland Technical Institute and Ridgewater College. Through this contact, the FBI learned about SkillsUSA and attended the national conference.

“We didn’t go to the state level. We didn’t go to the regional level. We just showed up at the national competition,” Young remembers. “We met the SkillsUSA folks and started looking at contests and how they could serve the FBI. We identified the electronics contest, befriended the people putting on the contest, befriended SkillsUSA and went on behind-the-scenes tours. We had a ‘look see’ and successfully recruited the No. 2 champion that year, Micah Rozier, who is still in the FBI with the Charlotte division.”

The FBI continued to recruit at the conference, where Young, based near Washington, D.C., learned about a local resource, the Virginia SkillsUSA association. He judged contests and began making presentations to the Virginia students about opportunities with the FBI.

“I always volunteered my time, and the FBI would always give me the time to travel,” Young says. “I continued to participate like that. And it’s benefited the FBI through identification of these people. We call them the Nation’s 50 Best. When you get someone who’s won a state contest, you’ve got somebody that’s extraordinary. You go to the national contest and get the best in the nation or the second best. We’ve had both. It’s just superb. They’re able come on board and hit the road running, so to speak.”

Young, who has more than 20 years experience dealing with SkillsUSA, has seen firsthand how members have an edge.

“To sum up what SkillsUSA does for its membership, it picks up where the educational institution leaves off,” he explains. “The education institutions provide the skills necessary for performing in a chosen field, regardless of the profession. Then SkillsUSA puts on the polish. This polish includes public and extemporaneous speaking, leadership skills, team building, personal appearance and much more.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2002 | Volume 36, No. 4
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