Fort Meade key care brought up to date; Security system handling 11,700 keys enters computer age


Clarke Howard has more keys than a jailer, and he keeps them under lock and microchip.

Howard, chief of Fort Meade's housing division facilities branch, is responsible for 11,700 keys that unlock the sheds and doors of 2,862 houses, townhouses and apartments where military families make their homes.

They used to dangle like jewelry from thousands of hooks that lined the walls in a 9-by-12-foot room in the back of Howard's office. But now, they're tagged with microchips and slotted into 14 computerized drawers. Keeping up with who has all those keys has never been more efficient.

"We got out of the business of looking for the hook," Howard said.

Fort Meade has more keys to keep track of than any operation in the area.

KeyTrak, a Duluth, Ga., company that designed the post's key control system, created a smaller system for Andrews Air Force Base that uses nine drawers. The House of Representatives is getting an 11-drawer system in March, said Diane Bates, a KeyTrak spokeswoman.

Fort Meade is home to 2,351 military personnel with 6,000 dependants and to 78 tenant organizations. In addition to Howard's keys, the billeting office, which houses single soldiers and provides temporary lodging for military students and service people passing through, keeps track of 810 keys to its 162 units, and the real property office, which does not have a computerized system, holds several hundred more passkeys for post buildings and offices.

All those keys represent the security of the post: classified papers, computer and other equipment, antiques, family photographs, and trinkets from overseas. Not to mention more than 100 homes considered historic property.

Since 1933, when the fort established a housing division, people in the housing and billeting offices had run key security like desk clerks in an old hotel, not like the military of a technologically advanced superpower.

They marked keys with paper tags attached with cotton string and hung the keys on hooks screwed into a plywood board. In the housing office, the boards lined three walls nearly ceiling to floor. In the billeting office, the keys were kept in a lockbox in a small closet.

Maintenance workers who needed access for repairs or soldiers who wanted to check out their new housing assignments would sign a log book and leave their identification to check out a key.

When they returned a key, the workers were supposed to sign the log again, but they didn't always do that.

After office hours, lockouts were troublesome. A soldier could go to the military police, but the MPs had to call on the post Fire Department for access to the key room.

A firefighter would sign the key out for the police officer, who would escort the locked-out soldier home and return the key to the Fire Department.

Helping the police in investigations by figuring out who had a specific key at a certain date and time translated into hours of paperwork. Security inspections were a big headache.

Keys were placed on the wrong hooks or strung with the wrong tag often enough that instead of trying to straighten things out, it was easier to have a locksmith change the locks and assign new keys.

The housing office bought its $40,000 automated key control system last spring, and billeting got an $11,000, two-drawer system soon afterward. The system transformed key-keeping.

For the housing office system, KeyTrak programmers spent 10 days assigning microchips encased in dime-sized battery cases to more than 2,600 plastic cards, then shipped them to the post. There, workers spent four days punching holes in the cards, attaching the cards to key rings and training staffers.

"It means a lot to this office," said Christopher Green, a facilities clerk. "I could pull six or seven keys in 30 seconds. It's very quick."

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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