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At Tornado-ravaged Sites, RFID Helps FEMA Contractor Manage Inspectors' Kits

PaRR Inspections is using EPC Gen 2 tags to track electronic equipment loaned to claims inspectors, in order to speed up responses to disaster victims' requests for assistance.
By Claire Swedberg
May 05, 2011In the aftermath of a recent series of tornadoes and floods that devastated portions of the southeastern United States, government contractor Partnership for Response and Recovery (PaRR) Inspections is employing radio frequency identification to help it distribute Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) inspection kits to its field workers efficiently, and to ensure that all items within those kits are accounted for after inspections are completed. By attaching EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to each kit's contents, PaRR has an automated way of tracking which personnel have which items, and ensuring all items are ultimately returned . The solution, known as AssetTrax, was provided by North Carolina asset-tracking firm Entigral Systems.

When a federal disaster is declared, FEMA's inspection contractors send field workers to assess claims for homes and businesses damaged or destroyed. The workers are issued kits filled with a variety of FEMA-owned electronic equipment—typically, a laptop computer, a camera, batteries and battery chargers—necessary for gathering data that is then usually stored on the devices and sent to a back-end server once an Internet connection can be found. The kits, says Booth Kalmbach, Entigral Systems' chief technology officer, "contain everything they need to get their work done autonomously." At the end of a disaster-assessment project, the workers return the equipment to their employers, who are responsible for managing the FEMA assets. Often, items end up lost, or kits become mixed up between numerous inspectors who may, for example, be sharing a hotel room.

At PaRR's warehouse in Winchester, Va., assembled kits are placed on a conveyor, where they pass through a shielded RFID tunnel.

PaRR Inspections began working with Entigral Systems approximately three years ago to develop an RFID-based solution that would allow an inspection company to track not only who had checked out or returned kits, but also the items themselves. The recent series of devastating storms, however, provided the first comprehensive tryout of the entire kit-tracking solution. "We've tested different components of the system," says Doug Frost, PaRR's executive director, "but there hadn't been any large scale-disaster."

That changed with the tornadoes that struck North Carolina on Apr. 16. PaRR sent inspectors into the area for FEMA, providing them with kits containing as many as 18 items. Each object had a passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tag attached to it, while the carrying case that holds the items was fitted with a similar tag. The kits were shipped to a field office on tagged pallets. Finally, inspectors were issued RFID-enabled badges to link them with the kits they received for their work.

The carrying case of each FEMA inspection kit is fitted with an EPC Gen 2 RFID tag, as is each item packed within.
Shortly after the tornadoes struck North Carolina, a series of storms damaged homes and businesses in Tennessee, Arkansas and Virginia, with flooding causing another natural disaster in Kentucky. By early May, Frost says, PaRR had sent between 400 and 500 inspectors into the field. With the AssetTrax system, the government contractor can more easily document the locations of kits and their contents, as well as the individual inspectors to whom they are assigned—based on RFID readings of the tags as inspectors receive and then return the kits.

Over the past three years, PaRR Inspections has tagged approximately 65,000 pieces of equipment, along with 6,000 cardboard or polyethylene carrying cases in which they are stored. Each kit is designed for a specific type of disaster. The kit for a hurricane, for instance, differs from those for tornados or flooding, since different equipment is required to measure the damage. Therefore, PaRR needs to store information regarding the specific items in each kit, and ensure that the proper kits are used at the correct location, and that all contents are in their carrying case when a kit is returned.

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