California ISO Automates Emergency Evacuation with BLE

By By Claire Swedberg

The RTLS solution from Telaeris and HID Global is now being released commercially for mustering management.

Electricity operator California Independent System Operator (ISO) has been ramping up its Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) solution that tracks the location of personnel, for emergency response, at its main campus in Sacramento.

Since the system went live about three years ago, the organization says it has automated the process of alerting workers of an emergency event and can identify where individuals are always at.

The solution is provided by technology company Telaeris Inc, and includes beacons and gateways from HID Global. Known as the XPressEntry Real-Time Location System (RTLS) for emergency evacuation mustering, the system is now being provided commercially to other companies.

California ISO has been expanding the solution to accommodate more personnel, as more workers return to the office following the pandemic. It now offers real-time location of up to 1,000 workers during emergency evacuations, whether inside the buildings or in the parking lots.

Ensuring the Safety of ISO Personnel

California ISO is a bulk electric system balancing authority that encompasses about 80 percent of the state as well as being the reliability coordinator for 11 western states and northwest Mexico, explains Lance LaBreck, California ISO’s business continuity and corporate preparedness manager.

California ISO forecasts electrical demand, facilitates an electricity market and real-time reliability of the grid. LaBreck likens this to a highway patrol: monitoring traffic and safety on major roadways; in this case, ISO patrols the electrical grid rather than highways.

“We maintain reliability for the bulk electric system, manage the flow of energy, oversee the transmission planning process, and are responsible for the operation of the wholesale electric market,” he says.

When it comes to its personnel, all staff need to be safe, and for each individual on site, additional safety and security is critical, the organization asserts.  Overseeing the electrical system 24/7, the California ISO must always operate and that can’t be done from workers’ homes.

“Within our organization we need people on our campus to run the company and without those people [our operation] does not run,” LaBreck said.

How it Works

With XPressEntry, each employee is assigned a BLE beacon integrated with a company security badge they wear when onsite. The beacon is encoded with a unique ID that transmits to small BLE gateways plugged into receptacles around the entire 300,000 square-feet of indoor and outdoor space.

The indoor BLE gateway covers a radius of 25 meters, while the outdoor gateways can read badges from up to 40 meters. The Bluetooth beacons use RSSI as well as angle of arrival (AoA) algorithms to approximate the location of each badge within about 10 meters.

The unique ID in the beacon is linked to the identifiable information of the employee or visitor in the XpressEntry software which is integrated with the organization’s own personnel or HR software. Information such as the employee number, name and their mobile phone number, as well as manager, is replicated from the HR system into the XpressEntry software.

Location data is only accessed when activated by a company emergency response team member. The solution provides the real-time location of everyone in the building or in the parking lot. As workers and visitors evacuate, their badge continues to beacon throughout the evacuation process.

If a worker does not leave the facility, the software can identify where that individual is. If they leave the campus, they are automatically removed from the tracked occupancy.

Enhancing on Existing Solution

Before adopting XPressEntry, the California ISO only used a cloud-based emergency notification system that allowed emergency response team members to send out direct communication to all staff when additional emergency communication was needed, via their company or personal phones.

However, that method did not identify the location of individuals—relying on workers seeing a notification on their phone that they must evacuate and where they should go.

In fact, says LaBreck, the Achilles’ heel for mustering systems is the constraints of human behavior. If a message is sent to all phones, response could be unpredictable. Employees may not be looking at their phone or might leave their desk without their phone.

To address this, the company worked with Telaeris on a technology-based solution that automated the process of who is safe for staff and visitors.

Handheld Identification and Mustering

Telaeris, founded in 2005, has been a provider of handheld badge readers for physical access control systems (specifically for identification and mustering), explains David Carta, the company’s CEO.

The initial foray into emergency mustering began with a personnel tracking project in 2007 for British Petroleum (BP), ultimately becoming the XPressEntry solution.

In the years since, XPressEntry has been integrated into more than 40 physical access control systems to better automate the tracking and validation of people in an emergency, the company says.

The latest versions of the solution include real-time location systems using HID BLE badges and beacon gateways with, or without, its own XPressEntry handheld badge and biometric readers. The system can continue to record activities offline when cellular or Wi-Fi connectivity is lost, and all stored activities are synced as soon as the connection is reestablished.

Additionally, the Telaeris system synchronizes information from any access control system. “We can basically pull in whatever the system of record is … so we know who [the badge-wearing] people are and can report this to the access control system,” said Carta.

Redundancy and Ease of Installation

The California ISO leveraged solar-powered, off-grid solutions to position beacon gateway units anywhere outside without running building electricity. That relieved the company of having to rip up parking lots, dig ditches or run power to poles, LaBreck says. By using cell routers, wireless redundancy is achieved in the case that corporate internet is unavailable during an emergency.

Overall, the solution is designed to be plug-and-play so that installers simply plug in each gateway and provision it with their phone running the system app. The gateway data is then sent to the cloud via a local secure wireless.

“The reason we chose HID’s technology over anybody else's RTLS system, is because of the ease of installation and reduced cost of additional infrastructure integration,” adds Carta.

 Gaining a Return on Investment

California ISO has measured the initial cost, return on investment, and maintenance and consumable fees along with the cost of training, testing, and maintaining staff to manage the same requirements.

They then determined the risk and potential scenarios that can occur by not having the tool in place.

“It still requires our emergency response team to make the decisions to keep our staff safe and facility secure,” LaBreck says.

Longer Life Span

“The benefit of these tools is in the speed of information available. This will also help first responders know where our people are located if still in the building.”

The organization will continue to employ floor wardens who were previously tasked with clearing the area impacted. However, says LaBreck, in the past, “we [were] limited by our ability to ‘see something and say something’ during an emergency. This tool helps us do both.”

While the current life span of beacon batteries is two years, “we are hoping to get four to five years by adjusting for a more intermittent signal to extend the battery life.”

Key Takeaways:
  • California ISO is tracking about 1000 personnel and visitors at its Sacramento facilities with a BLE-based RTLS system from Telaeris.
  • The technology is built to be “plug and play” and easy to deploy by simply plugging in HID Global’s beacon gateways and commissioning that location with an app.