FBI’s newest piece of real estate is run with robots

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A modern looking new building in Winchester, Virginia, is the FBI’s new records storage and retrieval facility. No more long warehouse corridors of gray steel shelving stacked high – this is a high tech place from the get go. Assistant Director of the FBI Information Management Division Arlene Gaylord joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for a verbal tour.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Gaylord, good to have you on.

Arlene Gaylord: Thank you so much for having me.

Tom Temin: So let’s begin. This building in Winchester it’s a nice looking place from the outside. I looked at the video. Why did the FBI commission this building in the first place?

Arlene Gaylord: So the Central Records Complex – we call it the CRC – is a behemoth state of the art National Archives and Records Administration-accredited records storage facility that allows the FBI to consolidate its record holdings from over 265 locations around the world into one secure location. As far as what it replaces it will free the space at FBI offices across the FBI as the CRC will now be the hub of all FBI closed files. For our customers, this means that they’re going to have a lot more space for operations and staff, and we’re going to spend less money wasted on leasing space for our older files. The facility is going to ingest records from FBI headquarters, our field offices and our legal attache.

Tom Temin: Alright, so this means that people are going to have to give up things they’ve been able to clutch at a moment’s notice, correct?

Arlene Gaylord: That’s what some people who are not forward-leaning might say.

Tom Temin: And give us a sense of the range of records that will go into this place because, again, judging from the video, it’s not just paper files, is it?

Arlene Gaylord: It is not. So we’re going to be storing closed files and records in the CRC’s automated storage and retrieval system. We call that ASRS. And that ASRS is going to allow the FBI to centralize approximately 120 linear miles of closed files. These files contain over 2 billion pages and lined end to end would go to the moon and beyond. The FBI began ingesting closed files into the ASRS system this July. So what you saw in the video contains stock footage of a similar system that’s used in commercial settings.

Tom Temin: So this is all paper records, in other words, or files or, or is it objects also?

Arlene Gaylord: So it’s objects, there’s quality control, there’s things that because of fire protection we want to make sure we don’t put in there.

Tom Temin: Besides paper, what what are some typical examples of things that will be in the storage bins in this automated retrieval system?

Arlene Gaylord: I can’t go into too much granularity, right? So we have things that are not allowed to be in there. But you might find files, pictures, you might find technology that’s not flammable. But it’s quite a long list. And I’m not prepared to give you the specifics, but it’s more than just paper for sure.

Tom Temin: So it could be things that you would have to look at again, at some point?

Arlene Gaylord: Absolutely.

Tom Temin: All right. And tell us more about the building itself. There are bins that go down into holes and robots that pull them up, back up again, tell us how this all works.

Arlene Gaylord: All right, well let me tie it all together. So we completed the construction early this year with the GSA and we collaborate on the construction. So now that it’s standing, we’re on to the next step of the project. So we’re moving over 2 billion pages of FBI closed files to the facility. We think it’s going to take well over 500 semi truck loads of records arriving in a steady stream for approximately two years. Let me tell you about the facility: We built it in Frederick County, Winchester, Virginia, and we’ve got approximately 500 personnel working multiple shifts to staff it. Our staff here at the CRC supports our mission of upholding the integrity of the FBI records, which is really key to our overarching mission here at the FBI to protect the American public. So our records and our information for the backbone of any organization – without that backbone, especially one as large and diverse as the FBI, it wouldn’t be supported. So we support the mission to promote the public’s trust in the FBI, and also support the FBI law enforcement partners through programs such as the National Name Check and processing a Freedom of Information and Privacy Act requests, as well as all aspects of the records information and dissemination.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Arlene Gaylord. She is the FBI’s Information Management Division assistant director. And tell us more about the physical retrieval and storage system, because I think it’s pretty novel, isn’t it?

Arlene Gaylord: It absolutely is. So it’s the first time that we use this kind of technology within the federal government. So you see this used by private companies, but right now, and I’m just gonna say right now, because this may not stay like this forever, or even for very long, but we’re currently the biggest grid ever built by the manufacturer. So let’s talk about that because it sounds like you’re interested in hearing about what it’s like. Our grid is the size of a one and a half football fields and has three bays separated by firewalls. Now this is important because our regulations, which is the CFR, requires that we separate those records into three bays to limit each bay to no more than 250,000 cubic feet. So when you’re talking about size, this holds 361,000 bins, and each bay houses approximately 120,000 bins. We build them by stacking them together, bins one on top of each other. They’re 16 tall, and they’re bins that are specifically designed for us. We’re the first customers to have lids on them, and they’re also designed to shed water because I don’t think I have to tell you that if there’s one thing that doesn’t mix well with paper records, it’s water. Those bins are then managed, and the operations use over 100 robots. They can travel from bay to bay by going through fire doors, and they’re going to bring out the requested bin within 60 minutes, which is impressive when you consider the way that it could take weeks before or months. We operate the system through touchscreen terminals, which is really important. And basically what that means, which is really important for someone like me, if you can use a smartphone, you can operate the system.

Tom Temin: So these bins then are loaded and they dropped down into a hole. They could be 13 or 14 or number one or two and a stack of 16, but there’s a locator and so you can then retrieve it and the robot takes out the other 14, gets that number three or four out of the bottom, lifts it up and delivers it somewhere. I’m simplifying but is that basically how it works?

Arlene Gaylord: It is. And so let me walk you through it because I think it’s something that’s absolutely fascinating. What’s great about the system is that our special agents or personnel out in the field or our legal attaches – they don’t need to know where the files are stored. Our computer keeps track of the location of every single file that we put into that cube. And information about the location is maintained within our inventory management system. So we basically have the robots retrieve the file that’s requested by our personnel based on commands that we receive from the inventory system. What’s cool when you actually watch them, it’s a very intricate dance, they respect each other’s space. So if you watch them when they’re operating at full throttle, they actually dance around each other with a precision as the computer guides them through their work. And it is something to actually behold.

Tom Temin: Alright, well, let me ask you this: If these records are stored, are they also digitized in some way? Suppose I’m in the Los Angeles field office and I need a file that’s in Winchester, Virginia, and I’ve shipped that file to Winchester, Virginia. Is there any way of reading it remotely or, how does that work?

Arlene Gaylord: That’s actually a great question and that actually leads into our goal for the future. I see a future where we rely less and less on paper. So let me simplify it in kind of like the easiest way possible. We become the custodian of the records. We are the custodian of the records, you are out in the field you’re working and you need to file – a file that’s closed – and you’re going to submit a ticket on the computer through our file request system. We will receive the ticket electronically here at IMD. The robots are going to retrieve the record from the grid. We will then receive, file, scan and digitize that file using high speed scanners which can digitize the records at the rate of eight pages per second. We then provide an electronic copy of the file to the person who’s asking for it because they need it or others who have appropriate accesses. Now you ask the question, which I think a lot of our customers really care about is that’s absolutely a cultural change, right? People want to actually hold the file in their hands. Our goal is to get it to where it’s always provided -right – digitized, and we will, of course, if the law requires it, or there’s a request from a court for a physical file, we can grab those under a limited set of circumstances.

Tom Temin: I mean, I can imagine a time or a case when, for example, the physical file could reveal whether somebody wrote something in a ballpoint pen or a fountain pen, which you can’t necessarily see from a digitized. Or if there’s some piece of, I don’t know, a dot of blood on a sheet of paper or something where you might need to have physical touching of the record. So that’s still possible?

Arlene Gaylord: Absolutely. It has to be possible, because we may have a court that orders that for those types of reasons.

Tom Temin: All right, and are you open and running and what’s coming next? I mean, I know the building is complete. You said you’ve got two years of truckloads. When does that all start?

Arlene Gaylord: So we have begun. We’re in ingestion mode. We’re going to centralize over 500 of those tractor trailers of our closed files. So what we expect to see every day is beautiful trucks rolling in and our team making sure that they are ready for ingestion with a very rigid quality control process taking in those files. And there’s a lot of benefits, right, that once we finish this – and it’s absolutely going to be a marathon, right, not a race – why it’s so important is that it’s going to get us to our goal of transforming FBI records retrieval by providing them quickly, digitally and on demand. We hope that this just doesn’t revolutionize the FBI, but as one of the larger organizations using records, we hope that it revolutionizes federal records storage and promotes timely access of our closed files. But most importantly, when it comes to protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution, it’s going to free up much needed space at FBI offices to actually do the work that is required and provides a cost savings for field offices that are no longer going to be required to lease storage space.

Tom Temin: And the final question, these are closed cases and some of them are going to get older and older. I imagine some of them go way back already. Is this type of record available to researchers are academic or to the public that might want to look at a closed case?

Arlene Gaylord: It is through our FOIA/FOIPA process. They would actually make a formal request. We’ve made those so that you can do them online. And so you would put in that request, and we would actually look at it and give you a response. So the answer is we are – that’s one of the ways that the FBI and IMD provides direct service to the American people.

Tom Temin: Arlene Gaylord is assistant director of the Information Management Division at the FBI. Thanks so much for joining me.

Arlene Gaylord: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to a video of the new building at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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