Anaheim Fire Department Deploys Multipronged RFID System

By Beth Bacheldor

Radio frequency identification will help the California organization monitor the location and status of not only firefighters, equipment and supplies, but also disaster victims.

The Anaheim Fire Department in Orange County, Calif., has thousands of RFID-enabled patient triage tags ready for use in the event of a mass emergency. By year's end, the department plans to equip all 12 of its fire stations with handheld RFID interrogators, and to deploy a number of 915 MHz EPC Gen 2 RFID tags so it can automate inventory management and the replenishment of its medical supplies.

Next year, the fire department will begin employing active 433 MHz RFID tags to inventory the high-dollar equipment carried on its fire trucks, and will also add to the handhelds the capability to read those tags. Ultimately, the department intends to use similar 433 MHz active tags in conjunction with specialized, long-range interrogators that communicate with Wi-Fi-enabled access points. Such a system, the department hopes, will enable it to follow firefighters' locations in real time as they battle fires and other emergencies.

The Anaheim Fire Department first started looking into RFID about three years ago, as a way to replace the paper tags utilized by fire departments across the country to identify and track injured individuals when responding to mass-casualty incidents. To that end, it began working with VerdaSee Solutions, a Langhorne, Pa., RFID company that develops customized RFID-enabled tracking and tracing products and services.

In September, VerdaSee unveiled its Navigator First Response System, developed largely from the company's work with the Anaheim Fire Department. The system includes readers, tags and middleware. To develop the system, VerdaSee also partnered with AAID, a Peachtree City, Ga., manufacturer of active RFID systems specifically designed for hands-free vehicle identification in fleet management, parking, airports, gated communities, access control and asset management applications.

"We started off looking at developing a tracking system for [paper-based] triage tags," says Bob Logue, deputy chief of the Anaheim Fire Department. The triage tags require that first responders and medical personnel place tags on patients, then tear off the appropriate color-coded portion of each tag matching that particular patient's condition. The color codes are green, signifying minor injuries; yellow, for non-life-threatening conditions; red, for life-threatening injuries; and black, for deceased.

The torn-off portions are then compiled and used to determine the quantity and status of patients at the scene, and —if there's time to write down the information—when, and to which hospital, the patient is being transported. The paper tags are effective, but the process of collecting them and consolidating their information is time-consuming and prone to errors. The most difficult task involves tracking patients once they leave the scene via ambulance.

The RFID solution, once fully implemented, will be able to capture data from the tags as they are scanned at every step of the way, from initial check-in by a medic to transport to the hospital, thus allowing for the seamless hand-off of patients. The ability to quickly know the number of patients, as well as their types of injuries and disposition, is a huge step forward in the handling of mass-casualty incidents, Logue says, and will eliminate lost tags or missed information. This, he adds, will enable patients to be quickly reunited with their families.

The RFID-enabled system, developed by VerdaSee and the Anaheim Fire Department, consists of EPC Gen 2 tags embedded in the triage tags, which are affixed to patients via a lanyard. First responders and medical personnel are equipped with a handheld device containing a built-in RFID reader they can use to capture the tags' unique ID numbers. A display screen on the device guides a medic through a series of prompts requesting such basic information as the patient's approximate age, sex and condition.

The tags can be scanned once more when the patient is loaded onto an ambulance, at which time the hospital to which that person will be taken can be entered into the system. All of the data can then be transmitted to a back-end system that the commander in charge of the incident can access in order to better understand the situation and the fire department's response, as well as learn the quantity of patients and the individual status of each.

The Anaheim Fire Department was able to work with VerdaSee to develop the RFID-enabled triage tags and interrogators via funding from a grant issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as part of its Metropolitan Medical Response System (MMRS) program. The program helps cities develop plans, conduct training and exercises, and acquire equipment for responding to a mass-casualty event caused by a terrorist act.

Since deploying its RFID system, Logue says, the department has sought other ways to leverage it as well. "The more often personnel utilize the reader," he states, "the more comfortable they will be with the device." The department has thus begun affixing EPC Gen 2 tags to medical supplies stored at the 12 fire stations so firefighters can automatically order new supplies when needed.

The RFID tags will cover all supplies, from Band-Aids to IV drugs, used by emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics when they respond to calls. The supplies are stored in individual bins, which are currently being tagged with the EPC Gen 2 labels. Fire personnel will employ the same handhelds used for the triage tags to scan each bin tag, then enter into the device the amount that needs to be ordered. The reader can then be docked, and the data from the order transmitted back to the department's headquarters via Anaheim's internal, citywide network. Every time a fire rig is restocked, that information will be sent over as well, and a weekly order will then be built.

Next year, the Anaheim Fire Department plans to add active VerdaSee 433 MHz RFID tags to such high-dollar assets as rescue tools, cardiac monitors and automatic external defibrillators (AEDs). These tags will store in-service dates, maintenance schedules and other information. The goal is to have the tags remind services section managers of all required repairs and checks.

"Firefighters can see what's on their trucks, and when things were last serviced," Logue explains. "They can make sure the assigned equipment is on their trucks. This is especially important on seldom-used items and reserve apparatus. During fires, equipment gets swapped by mistake, so sometimes it's not your apparatus on your rig, but the apparatus from another station."

Perhaps the RFID application in which Logue and his colleagues are most interested is one that will enable the department to track firefighters while they are actually fighting fires—a system he says will ultimately save lives. By affixing active 433 MHz tags to each firefighter's breathing apparatus, or by embedding the tags into their clothing, the department envisions a time in the near future when it will be able to track firefighters' movements in real time as they enter a building.

"Firefighters get separated from the hose line inside of structures, or a sudden collapse prevents them from leaving the building," Logue says, "and sometimes they aren't able to be found until it is too late." He cites the events of 9-11, as well as a June 2007 fire at a furniture warehouse in Charleston, S.C., in which nine firefighters perished. "There is no way to tell if an RFID system would have changed any of these tragic events," he says, "but the potential to save lives is very exciting."

The system will include VerdaSee's active 433 MHz tags and AAID's long-range readers, which Pete Martin, AAID's president, says function solely as RF receivers, and not as transmitters. "Our long-range readers are unique in the industry," he says. "Most readers are active, meaning they generate a wake-up signal to pull information from tags. So our readers don't make any noise at all. We can tune our readers down to very short ranges of one inch, but also out to long ranges of 300 feet. They can listen to zones at an emergency site and do real-time inventory to know where all of the firefighters are, and then zero in on one particular tag in a very small area within a zone."

The tags transmit very short, 9-millisecond signals at intervals determined by motion sensors. When moving, a tag beacons once every second and a half; if it ceases movement, it beacons every 15 or 30 seconds. "If the tag is moving," Martin states, "then you can determine the fireman is moving around in the fire, and that tells you, typically, that he's okay." But if the tag stops moving, he notes, then another fireman can take a handheld reader with a directional antenna near the area of the tag's last beacon, in an effort to pinpoint the motionless tag and, ultimately, the firefighter wearing it.

The tags and long-range readers communicate via a proprietary air-interface protocol. The firefighter-tracking system will include portable nodes in fireproof boxes, about the size of a child's lunchbox. Each portable node will contain an AAID RFID interrogator connected to a Wi-Fi card that communicates with other portable nodes to form an encrypted, secure mesh network. This network will communicate with a computer used by a firefighting official, and with handheld RFID readers fireman carry when searching for tag-wearing colleagues.

As firemen proceed into a building, they can take these portable nodes into the structure and place them in stairwells and other specific areas. "You can cover a 10-story building that covers a city block with three nodes," says Reuben Vasquez, VerdaSee's president and CEO.

All of the systems in Anaheim are presently in the installation or planning phase, Logue says, and the pace at which new ideas and uses are being discovered is gathering speed. "RFID and the world of public safety are now moving together to make it a safer work place for the firefighter," he states, "and to make the day-to day-operations more efficient."