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RFID Tracked Casualties in Iraq

During the war, the United States Navy piloted a system that uses RFID to track injured soldiers as they move from the battlefield to hospitals.
By Bob Violino
May 21, 2003May 19, 2003 - RFID may never replace bar codes, but it could well spell the end of toe tags -- identifiers put on casualties during war. The US Navy's Fleet Hospital 3 based in Pensacola, Florida, successfully tested an RFID system, dubbed the Tactical Medical Coordination System, which tracked wounded soldiers within a mobile hospital.
The Navy's RFID system for tracking battlefield casualties could save lives

"Essentially, what we're trying to do was the same thing as FedEx does every day," says Navy chief hospital corpman Michael Stiney. "We wanted to be able to tell where a casualty was last and, along the way, gather critical information that might help in his or her treatment."

The technology has been in development for five years. The vision is that one day US soldiers will go into battle with dog tags (ID tags) that carry an RFID transponder. Instead of just providing the soldier's name and serial number, the tags would also store information on blood type, allergies, and other information needed by medical personnel.

"The long term goal of the program is to push it into field with Navy medics," says Bob Williams, program manager at ScenPro, the Dallas systems integrator that worked with the Navy on the project. "The handheld device will have a GPS module on it, so when medics go to treat a wounded soldier, they can capture some basic information, such as what type of injury it is, what kind of treatment was provided, and then just mark his location."

The information would be written to the tag, so that as the soldier is moved, the information moves with him. When he reaches the fleet hospital -- a navy hospital set up in tents and cargo containers -- the tag is read to identify the soldier. The database is updated and the information is written to the tag when the soldier is moved to the operating room, recovery ward and so on.

Soldiers in Iraq were not given RFID tags, so the field test was more limited. Casualties arriving at the Pensacola Fleet Hospital were given a wristband from a company called Precision Dynamics Corp. The band carries a Tag-It RFID tag from Texas Instruments.

The microchip in the device can store 1,024 kilobits of data. So staff used a serial number to track the soldiers. Each time a soldier was treated or moved, staff wrote the latest information to the tag using a modified Minec handheld from ACC Systems of Glen Head, New York.

"Many people see this as a really good way to track casualties," says Bill Allen, eMarketing Manager, Texas Instruments RFID Systems. "It's applicable not just in a war environment, but also in emergency situations, like what happened on Sept. 11."

The US military currently tracks soldiers with a pencil and clipboard or a toe tag. The problem is, in the confusion of the battlefield, it's easy to lose a clipboard or be unable to read something that was written in extreme haste. The system is designed to bring some order to the chaos.

"The unit using it isn't back yet, so I haven't received a full debriefing, but the initial response has been good," says Stiney. "It has functioned pretty much as we expected it to, and it provided value in capturing information."

Williams says the ScenPro team plans to visit Pensacola Fleet Hospital at the end of June, when the unit returns from the Gulf to get details on how the system performed, its strengths and any weaknesses. "We'll do an after action report and improve the system based on the feedback we receive," he says.

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