Matthew Barthel

In an instant, we are connected … by email, 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.

“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.”