AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine firefighters are missing out on a training opportunity at the National Fire Academy this year because the state is not in compliance with a decade-old federal ID law regulating state-issued driver’s licenses.
Maine is among 23 states and five U.S. territories not in compliance with the Real ID Act, and the Legislature in 2007 passed a law prohibiting the state from complying with law amid concerns that it would create a de facto “internal passport.”
On Jan. 30, some federal agencies stopped accepting Maine-issued driver’s licenses from those entering certain secure facilities, such as nuclear power plants, the U.S. mint and military bases. In January 2018, Mainers and residents in other noncompliant states who want to board domestic flights will need identification compliant with Real ID or an accepted alternative, such as a U.S. passport or passport card. But it’s already affecting the firefighting community.
Firefighters routinely train with their local departments, but once a year, about 100 of them get to attend Maine State Weekend at the National Fire Academy in Maryland.
This would have been the 30th year. Instead, it’s being canceled.
“It is disappointing,” Brunswick Fire Chief Ken Brillant said. “There are departments that plan every year to send people down to that.”
Jim Graves, director of the Maine Fire Service Institute, said Maine is missing out because the state is not compliant with Real ID, which was passed by Congress in 2005 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Real ID sets new minimum standards for issuing driver’s licenses and other state-issued identification.
Although the state has protested Real ID, Maine has made improvements to its licensing process, including requiring documentation to prove that license applicants are in the U.S. legally and live in Maine, tightened security at facilities where licences are made, and limits their validity to eight years.
But the state has failed to meet some of Real ID’s more controversial requirements, such as using facial recognition software at Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices and fingerprinting Bureau of Motor Vehicles employees. In addition, the state hasn’t started to use Homeland Security-approved security markings on ID cards.
Without the proper card, firefighters can’t access the academy. Passports are acceptable, but Graves said officials don’t believe enough firefighters have them.
At the State House, not all legislators are in favor of complying.
“You’re dealing with people’s very private information, like Social Security numbers would be intertwined with your driver’s license now,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason said.
But those on both sides of the aisle agree it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
“We’re going to take a look and see what the specific details of the legislation are and talk to experts in the field,” said Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, who is the House chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
McLean expects Real ID compliance to come up at the end of February, and three bills have already been proposed to get Maine into compliance.
“The reality is we can’t leave people who need to go train at the fire academy, or who need to fly on a plane, we can’t leave them stranded, so we need to find a solution and very soon,” McLean said.
In October 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the implementation of Real ID, denied the state’s request for additional time to comply with the unmet requirements of the law because it had “not provided adequate justification for continued noncompliance.”
The academy is run by the U.S. Fire Administration, a unit of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Brillant said individual firefighters can still attend six- and 10-day sessions at the academy on their own throughout the year.
BDN writer Christopher Burns contributed to this report.