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RFID could have aided rescuers
at Conn. power plant tragedy

02/08/10 | John R. Johnson | email

In the wake of Sunday’s power plant explosion that killed five workers in Connecticut, legislators in that state have started to discuss new regulations overseeing power plant construction and safety.

Maybe lawmakers, who so often try to limit the use of RFID technology, should consider writing mandatory RFID usage for dangerous construction sites into any new regs that emerge as a result of the Middletown, Conn. accident. RFID could have helped emergency personnel to realize almost immediately whether or not any workers remained in the rubble, and prevented rescue personnel from attempting dangerous rescue missions.

The mining industry has embraced the technology after a series of accidents in recent years resulted in rescue workers not knowing where miners were trapped. The technology is a natural for big construction sites and utilities as well.

In the hours after the power plant accident there were questions about how many workers were actually at the site when the explosion occurred. A full 24 hours after the accident, some workers were still unaccounted for, and authorities on the scene admitted that they didn’t know how many workers were at the site that day. If workers wore RFID-enabled badges at the construction site, rescue personnel would have known their fate instantaneously – whether they left the scene after the accident, or if they were still at the site.

"Part of the problem was that they didn’t even know who was on site that day, which was why they had to keep looking," says Kathleen Carroll, director of government relations at HID Global, and also a certified information privacy professional. "The benefit of RFID is the ability to see who entered the job site, and having a record of who went on the site that day."

Following the 9/11 attacks in New York, Merrill Lynch was able to access data from its RFID-based employee access control system to determine that all its employees in the Twin Towers were accounted for. Similarly, law enforcement authorities at Yale University used data from access control cards to determine that a grad student who went missing in 2009 and was later found murdered in a research lab had entered the building, but never left the facility. That helped police to focus their search for her body on the building where she worked.

"We’ve started to see some larger companies start to investigate leveraging their RFID passes and security access cards to help link that information to people tracking in case of emergencies," says Andrew Nathanson, director of research operations at VDC Research. He expects public safety groups like fire departments and the military to begin making bigger use of the technology going forward.

In addition, some school systems and universities use RFID for access control and to assure that young students board and exit buses at the right time. That application has been more popular overseas, where safety benefits trump privacy concerns in some countries. RFID is also being used in healthcare to track medical workers in an effort to function more efficiently and know where doctors and nurses are at all times, especially if they are needed for emergency surgery. Interestingly, the technology is being used to link medical employees to assets, and patients to assets like wheel chairs, for equipment accountability and insurance purposes.

Tracking technology is also being used in nursing homes and sporting events. Psion Teklogix and Viascan are partnering to provide safety and security with accurate data collection on skier whereabouts at the 44th Annual Canadian Ski Marathon taking place next week. RFID will be deployed at 10 different check points to scan the bib numbers of the more than 2,000 cross-country skiers along the wooded 160 KM trail through Quebec’s rugged Western Laurentian Mountains.

In addition, the Florida Attorney General’s office uses RFID technology from ThingMagic not only to track thousands of court documents, but 350 court personnel in the building so they are at the right court at the right time. The safety benefits RFID provides make sense for hazardous industries like construction and utilities. Utility workers often work in dangerous electrical substations where one wrong move can prove fatal. RFID would allow the corporate office to track those employees at the job site, as well as on the road to their next location.

However, privacy concerns continue to linger when it comes to using RFID for people tracking. Last month the Rhode Island General Assembly overturned its Governor’s veto and approved a series of bills designed to protect civil liberties issues, including one that restricts the use of RFID at public schools. The Rhode Island situation appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to a 2008 bid by the Middletown school district in Rhode Island to use RFID tags on students back packs in an attempt to verify that elementary school students boarded the right school bus. RFID, if explained thoughtfully and in a well-educated manner to parents, is a natural for that type of application.

In this case, Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri actually got it right. When he vetoed the legislation in November, Carcieri noted that RFID could be help track students during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

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