Correction Facility Tracks Visitors

By Bob Violino

The Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office is using RFID to ensure people are accounted for in the event of an evacuation.

On many days, between 75 and 100 non-staff members typically enter and exit the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office (VBSO), a complex consisting of three connected buildings, including a correctional facility. For years, administrators employed a paper-based system to manually check contract workers, medical personnel, clergy, volunteers and other visitors into and out of the Virginia Beach, Va., facility. It is critical to know who is in the three-building complex at any given time, especially in the event of a fire or other emergency.

But that system was cumbersome, inaccurate and ineffective, says Captain Victoria Thomson, VBSO's former commanding officer of corrections, and currently the commanding officer of training and drug abuse resistance education. Evacuation orders are issued during monthly drills and actual emergencies, she explains, adding, "As a precaution, we issue an evacuation order when the fire alarm sounds."

RFID enables the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office to make sure that all people are accounted during evacuations.

VBSO would make evacuation announcements, but administrators had no easy, reliable method of ensuring everyone was out of the complex. "In emergency situations, we had to go back through the log sheets to determine who was in the building, and then try to identify where they were so they could be advised to evacuate," Thomson says. "We decided that automating the log of who is in the building would give us a better, more efficient way of tracking people."

In 2011, VSBO identified the requirements of an entrance-control system. During an evacuation, the facility needed to be able to track who had left the buildings, who had reported to one of the designated meeting (or muster) points and who most likely was still within the complex. The system also had to be Internet-based, so administrators could check visitors' status from anywhere within the facility or remotely. Other system requirements included the ability to issue ID tags to non-sworn staff members, as well as biometric verification for positively identifying individuals.

VSBO worked with TransitionWorks Software, a High Point, N.C., solutions provider, to build a customized RFID system that met all of these requirements. The Evacuation Control System was deployed in July 2012.

Design and Implementation
To oversee the project, the sheriff's office formed a cross-functional team consisting of Thomson, who served as special projects coordinator; Tim Baker, from the IT services team; and Lieutenant Christina Mapes, of the Watch Commander team, which would be the system's principal users. The group reviewed various technologies and possible implementation strategies.

In December 2011, the team selected TransitionWorks, which already offered an entrance-control system based on RFID technology, to help build a customized solution. VSBO determined that RFID would provide the most viable method of ensuring that visitors had indeed left the buildings during an evacuation. "We considered using only bar codes for checking people in and out," Thomson states, "but we still ran into the same problem of not having any idea of their location."

Upon entering the facility, visitors are asked to verify their identity using a fingerprint reader.

VBSO worked closely with TransitionWorks to make sure the system would meet its requirements. The solution provider suggested that the best way to track visitors during an evacuation was via active RFID technology operating at 433 MHz. One key reason, Thomson explains, was that the facility's muster points are large, open spaces that do not lend themselves to reading ultrahigh-frequency passive tags.

The firm recommended RF Code's M250 fixed readers and R140 badge tags. TransitionWorks modified its system to link to fingerprint readers that would provide the biometric capabilities, while VBSO purchased fingerprint readers from DigitalPersona. Another component of the system is Version 5.6 of TransitionWorks' middleware package, which manages the system and enables report creation. In addition, Motorola bar-code scanners were selected for use at entrance stations, to issue and return badges and equipment, such as keys and radios, from each person entering and exiting the facility.

The IT department at the sheriff's office supplied all internal network and hardware support. The Corrections Division provided direction and system testing.

According to Thomson, the project's initial budget did not allow for 100 percent coverage of all buildings within the complex. As a result, she says, "correct reader placement was crucial to cover all exits and muster points. We worked with TransitionWorks Software to perform site surveys, to ensure we had the coverage required to track non-sworn staff as they left the [facility] and reported to muster points." This included a primary muster point located within a building adjacent to one of the three VBSO buildings in the complex.

After an initial pilot to test the system's functionality, an RFID reader was placed at the primary muster point. Additional interrogators were situated near all exits throughout the complex, as well as at internal muster-point locations. Security issues prevent the agency from disclosing the readers' exact locations. Technicians tested reader locations to ensure they were receiving maximum coverage for all areas.

"We performed a rolling rollout, where a limited number of personnel were issued RFID badges the first week," Thomson reports. "The system was rolled out to include all non-sworn staff after two weeks."

In the Event of an Emergency
Now, upon entering the facility, visitors are asked to verify their identity using the fingerprint reader. Once each visitor's identity and entrance authority is confirmed, he or she is issued an RFID badge.

Transmissions from the badges display each individual's location as he or she moves throughout the facility. This information, Thomson says, can be viewed in real time, or be retrieved later for historical reporting purposes.

It is critical to know who is in the three-building complex at any given time, especially in the event of a fire or other emergency.

If the watch commander issues an evacuation order, any computer within the complex can display a real-time report showing all issued badges and each visitor's current location. As contract workers, volunteers and other visitors report to designated muster points or leave the buildings, their evacuation status is recorded and a color coding on the report screen changes to green, indicating they have safely exited.

Those badges still being identified in the buildings by non-muster-point readers are coded in red, with their approximate locations listed. Any issued badges out of range of a reader are displayed in yellow, signifying that the individual's location is unknown. His or her last known location is displayed, along with the time at which that person was there, in order to assist with search efforts.

Contracted medical personnel do not leave the building in the event of an emergency, Thomson says. "We have an RFID reader in our medical area so that when an evacuation order is issued, the medical staff can be accounted for using the RFID system," she adds. "If one of the medical staff does not report to medical, we can then find their last known location and start our search."

Evacuation reports can be produced for regulatory compliance purposes. Daily activity reports are available, listing personnel entries and exits, as well as equipment issues. What's more, the solution can be used to generate ad hoc reports regarding a variety of selection criteria. Data from the system can also be exported into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets for the purpose of additional evaluation.

Among the project's key challenges was training, which was managed by VBSO's Corrections Division. "This system was to be used by multiple people in a 24/7 environment," Thomson states. "Added to that is that the same person does not work the equipment every day. We had to train close to 200 people in a short period of time, some of whom would not actually use the system live for weeks after the training." VBSO addressed this concern by assigning personnel on each team within the facility as trainers, she says, so that if someone who had not worked with the system was assigned that post, he or she would have support.

Enhanced Control
The system provides VBSO with a much better way of ensuring that visitors have left the complex in the event that an emergency occurs, Thomson says. "When we used paper logs to sign people in and out of the facility, we had people signed in by department/contractor where they worked," she adds. "In an emergency evacuation, we had to go through at least eight pieces of paper to see who was in the building, and then we had to determine separately where they may be in the building." Officials had to dispatch deputies to medical and other areas within the complex to verify that everyone was accounted for.

"There are times when we have had to document the days and times a person was in the building," Thomson notes. "Under the old system, we had to go through pages of paper logs and find handwritten names. The logs had 30 or so lines of names, and sometimes people who are in a hurry do not have the best handwriting. Now, we can run a computer-generated report to get that info."

Transmissions from a person's badges displays that individual's location as he or she moves throughout the facility.

The amount of time required for visitors to check in and be issued equipment has decreased, Thomson reports, though VBSO has not performed any specific testing to measure the exact time savings. The biometric component allows the sheriff's office to positively identify people entering and leaving the facility. "The security enhancements from the system are great," she says. "The system allows us to set access levels within the building, as well as what type of equipment an individual is authorized to check out." The equipment is linked to the person to whom it is issued. "The equipment is bar-coded and numbered, so it can be easily scanned and issued."

The system cost approximately $30,000, Thomson says, and VBSO is already seeing a return on its investment, in terms of increased efficiency and accountability. "The costs of these things are immeasurable," she states.

According to Thomson, VBSO has plans to expand the system. "We intend to increase the number of RFID readers, which will help us in locating persons with even more accuracy," she says. There are also plans to expand the use of badges to include staff members, she adds, "so all persons in the building are accounted for." (There are no immediate plans to tag inmates, Thomson notes.) "We plan to integrate RFID tagging into issued equipment, so that in the event equipment is lost, it can be found."