The Ventura County (Calif.) Fire Department has deployed DigitalPersona’s Pro software and U.are.U fingerprint keyboards to reduce the security risks associated with using common log-ins at shared PCs. Instead, personnel now must log on to a PC using biometric fingerprint authentication to access their files and Internet settings, said Jim Fulton, a company vice president.

The VCFD has 547 firefighters, each with a unique online profile that includes department e-mail, a personal-user folder and saved Internet favorites, providing firefighters with a single point of entry for work-related items they can access from computers at any one of Ventura County's 31 fire stations. DigitalPersona Pro now enables the department to tie a user session on the computer with the specific user’s online profile through biometric fingerprint login, said Pablo Parades, the department’s IT account manager. The move helped provide security compared to previously, when there was a widespread problem because firefighters work three shifts, often transfer to other stations and may stay logged on at one station for days, weeks or months, Parades said.

“When someone logged into a computer at the fire station, they stayed logged-in for the duration,” he said. “They seldom log off. Therefore, it was difficult to control security, as far as who was accessing the computers because the actual person doing the work wasn’t logged in.”

The company upgraded their operating system to Windows Vista to support biometric data and accommodate fast user switching, Parades said. Now, a user’s fingerprint facilitates log in without being assigned a user name and passwords using the company’s fingerprint keyboard installed on fire-station desktop computers. Users touch — versus swipe or tickle — the reader and can use any computer throughout the entire department, Fulton said. The system can support as many as 35,000 users and is designed for high scalability, he noted.

“So they can treat the computers in the station as a shared resource, and for the emergency responders, all of their data is stored centrally so they can roam to different stations and still have access to files,” Fulton said.

The company’s DigitalPersona Pro software aligns with the Windows Vista operating system. Instead of typing a password, it offers a fingerprint ID request. Users now touch a fingerprint scanner and the backend accesses files and user settings. The software also captures third-party website passwords and remembers them for the user, Fulton said.

“So when you are using various websites instead of recalling the different passwords which are constantly changing … you’re able to use your fingerprint and the software will automatically use the proper password stored in that vault,” he said. “It makes managing various applications on the Web much easier.”

Parades said the system is highly reliable, but it did take some convincing to get firefighters to agree to use the program. He said they were concerned about privacy and even used their union to try to prevent the department from implementing the solution. Now, they “love it,” he said.

“I wasn’t sure myself, but it’s very reliable,” Parades said. “This particular product solved our security problems.”

The fingerprint keyboards cost around $99. The software suite costs $70 per user, Fulton said.