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Search Teams Put RFID to the Rescue to Help Find the Missing

Rescue agencies in the United States and Canada are leveraging RFID wristbands and readers to cut the time needed to locate lost individuals.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 01, 2007North American agencies and volunteer groups that search for people who've wandered away and become lost are using RFID-enabled wristbands and handheld readers—a combination that has drastically reduced the time it can take to find the missing.

In fact, average searches have been reduced to a half-hour or less, according to the 43rd Virginia Search and Rescue Group, a nonprofit volunteer group and the first to use the devices, provided by Locator Systems. The group has since distributed them to local public safety authorities through an organization it founded, Project Lifesaver International. The system uses wristbands and readers operating within the very high frequency (VHF) range. VHF allows for a read range of about a mile on the ground, and even greater distances from the air.Headquartered in Chesapeake, Va., Project Lifesaver now has 566 agencies participating in 41 U.S. states and one Canadian province. Those agencies, which include sheriff offices, police and fire departments, are using the system to monitor between 10,000 and 15,000 individuals. In addition to supplying the necessary hardware and software, Project Lifesaver also offers two-day training programs for new users.

Col. Tommy Carter, Project Lifesaver
In 1999, the Virginia Search and Rescue Group first began seeking technology that could help volunteers search for individuals—primarily Alzheimer's sufferers or those with autism—who had wandered away from their caregivers. In such cases, search-and-rescue personnel would sweep the area by walking or driving around the missing person's home. The average missing person walks at a speed of about 4 miles per hour, and the search could take hours or more, says Col. Tommy Carter, Project Lifesaver International's chief of training.

Such search efforts can be vastly expedited with the use of RFID-enabled wristbands and handheld interrogators. Each wristband can also be worn on the ankle or attached to a shoe, and comes with an active RFID chip and antenna, as well as a battery with a one-month lifespan. The chip is set to constantly transmit its unique ID at a specific frequency within the range of 216 to 217 MHz. Participating agencies, mostly county sheriff offices, provide the active RFID bracelets to participating members.

The specific transmission frequency the tag uses varies among wristbands, says Locator Systems CEO Jim McIntosh, to prevent the handheld from picking up irrelevant signals if multiple wristbands are beaconing in the same geographic area during a search. If, however, several wristbands beacon at the same frequency, the ID number helps differentiate the identities of those wearing the wristbands.

When someone is reported missing, the search agency dispatches personnel, either on foot or in cars, with handheld RFID readers. The searchers set the interrogators to the appropriate frequency for the missing person's wristband and begin combing the area. "The [reader] chirps, and the ID number shows up on the screen," Carter explains, when the device comes within range of the wristband (about 1 mile). After confirming the ID number, rescue personnel begin following the signal, which grows stronger as they approach the individual, indicated by a louder chirp. According to Carter, the first rescue mission to use the system—in Chesapeake County, in 1999—took six minutes to find the individual.

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