Smart Badges to Help Building Evacuations

Even two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the images of crowds streaming out of the blazing World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon are still fresh on many minds.

Even more chilling: The remains of hundreds of victims are still unaccounted for, leaving many survivors to wonder what happened to them in the final minutes of the disasterous collapse.

But how do you collect information on hundreds, if not thousands of people, as they're hurriedly leaving a building during an emergency? Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., have been working on a solution.

It's called the Evacuation Monitoring and Accountability System, or EMAS, and was initially developed to meet a stringent requirement put upon the lab by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Since some portions of the lab are involved with sensitive research on nuclear energy and weapons, the lab is required to account for everyone — workers and visitors — within 30 minutes of an emergency building evacuation. And according to Gary Steimer, senior program manager for EMAS, the previous system just wasn't making the grade.

"They had gone through many drills testing the previous system — a clipboard with a sign-in sheet," says Steimer. "If there was an evac, they took the clipboard and checked names off. It never met the mandate for 30 minutes of accountability."

Flashy Plastic

EMAS, says Steimer, provides an elegant advance by using so-called Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, a technology that has been gaining attention of late. And its workings are fairly simple.

Workers and visitors to the lab's Y-12 National Security Complex's Enriched Uranium Operations facility are issued a "smart badge" — a plastic card containing a microchip with a unique ID number. When the person walks through the main entrance, an antenna emits a radio beam that is reflected off the card. The returned radio signal carries the card's ID number, which is then automatically logged into a computer system's database.

When building occupants leave the building from any exit, the system wireless reads the card in the same manner and logs them out.

Such wireless RFID logging schemes have been proposed and used in limited cases to track products and inventory at large manufacturing and retail companies. But Steimer says EMAS has been tweaked by lab researchers to offer new capabilities that make it ideal for emergency building evacuations.

Replete With Redundancy

For one thing, EMAS is designed with complete redundancy in mind. Its database of who's in the building and who's out is kept on the computers in the building, as well as "mirrored" at another computer off-site.

"If the server [in the building] is damaged — say, from fire or an explosion — there's still a log that can be accessed," says Steimer. "There's still accountability."

The EMAS system can also be set up with additional wireless readers outside of the building — say at the building parking lot or pre-arranged rally points where building evacuees are suppose to meet. These readers can be turned on by building personnel or emergency responders and perform a quick tally.

The head count information is sent to the remote computer which updates the database instantly. Emergency personnel would then instantly see who's still unaccounted for using a handheld computer wirelessly connected to the remote servers in real time.

Steimer says lab researchers also worked on the wireless transmission system used by EMAS to make it more robust in urban environments. And the EMAS software was specially created to work in conjunction with existing electronic security systems that many buildings already use to control access and entry.

Do We Need Those Stinkin' Badges?

For now, the EMAS system is being used only in the lab's Y-12 facilities. But Steimer says he and his team have put forth a proposal to use the approach at another security-conscious government agency, and the lab is in discussion with private companies to produce commercial versions of EMAS.

"This is applicable to any building," says Steimer. "We would look, as soon as possible, to get this out of the lab and into the Department of Defense or the private sectors."

Still, while the technology might be ready for use in buildings, some note people themselves might not be. The main concern: privacy.

"I think it's one thing to institute a draconian employee tracking system in a sensitive government institution, such as in nuclear power plant, where the possibility of danger is great," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "But there is a danger to put this out where anyone can use it."

That's because she says there are virtually no standardized legal guidelines for workplace privacy. Therefore, whether or not such an employee tracking system would be installed — and possibly abused — would be left solely to the discretion of the employer or building management.

"There's only one state — Connecticut — that requires employers to notify employees that they are indeed monitoring them," says Givens. "There's very little or no privacy protection for employees at the workplace. You leave your privacy rights at the door when you enter the workplace. We learned that from video monitoring and e-mail."

And Given laments that without any governmental oversight, it's easy to become enamored of high-tech "solutions" such as RFID without really questioning if they are indeed useful.

"Cases can be made for people that work in highly dangerous workplaces to have a system [like EMAS] in emergency situations," says Givens. But, "could this all be accomplished with less-than-intrusive technology than RFID tags?"

Ready for RFID Run-Up

While the privacy issues may grate at employees and building residents, some say RFID systems are inevitable.

Ed Rerisi, director of research at Allied Business Intelligence, a research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y., notes the RFID industry is expected to reach the $1.3 billion mark this year and nearly $4 billion by 2008.

And while such systems will be mainly used by companies to track products and inventory rather than employees, Rerisi believes RFID systems designed for personnel safety are part of the future.

"I think all the technology exists to do [EMAS] today," says Rerisi. "Some of the privacy concerns are legitimate. But if you're looking at Oak Ridge — using RFID for safety —most would understand the trade off: You're giving up some [privacy] to a monitoring system for the sake or hope of better safety in the long run."