Idaho School Installs RTLS to Make Students Safer

By Claire Swedberg

Employees at Skyview High School wear Ekahau Wi-Fi badges that can be used to call for help in the event of a security threat or medical emergency, and also trigger a lockdown.

At Idaho's Skyview High School, when teachers and staff members have a possible emergency on their hands, they use an Ekahau real-time location system (RTLS) to indicate the nature of the problem and their location, thereby making response times faster than for traditional methods of placing phone calls or calling for help. The solution consists of Ekahau's Wi-Fi-based RFID tags, infrared (IR) beacons to make location data more granular and Ekahau's Vision software.

The December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as deadly incidents at other schools, had Bradley Ford, Skyview's resource manager in charge of security, concerned enough to begin looking into preventative measures. He says he spoke to the school counselor, as well as one of his own neighbors, regarding possible solutions. "We were asking, 'What are we doing to keep our kids safe?'" he states. Ford's neighbor researched various technologies, and suggested an RTLS solution featuring RFID tags that personnel could wear to call for help when necessary.

Ekahau's B4 badge tag

"We wanted something we could put in the hands of every teacher—something they could access right away," Ford says, rather than a panic button that might be mounted under a wall or at a doorway.

Ekahau's RTLS technology, notes Mark Norris, Ekahau's president, was not designed specifically for schools, but is used at a variety of workplaces, including hospitals. However, it is being employed by Germany's Friedrich-von-Canitz School, to provide teachers with a means of summoning help from any location within the school, simply by pressing a button or pulling a switch on a badge. Skyview was interested in this solution, and opted to install it, along with IR beacons, in order to help its resource officer and other staff members identify not only the nature of an emergency, but also its location.

Because the Ekahau solution works in conjunction with the school's existing Wi-Fi network, it was relatively inexpensive to implement, Ford says. The total price tag came to just over $30,000, including RFID tags, IR beacons and software—a cost covered by funding from an anonymous donor. The technology is scalable so that if other schools in the Nampa School District choose to utilize the same technology, they would need only acquire the tags.

Since the system was taken live earlier this month, approximately 100 staff members, including teachers, have been wearing Ekahau B4 badge tags, which come with three independent alarm triggers: a pull-down safety switch, as well as red and blue buttons, each option representing a specific type of emergency. The pull-down button is intended to prompt a full "lockdown" of the school (issuing alerts to every employee, as well as to the police), while the other two buttons signify a health or general emergency, respectively.

Skyview's Bradley Ford

In the event that any of the three options is triggered, Ekahau's Vision software, residing on the school's back-end system, captures and interprets the data (based on the particular button pressed and the tag's location). Within about four seconds, the software sends a message directly to the appropriate badges within the facility, thereby alerting personnel to the emergency's nature and location. Staff members can then view the text message on their badge's light-emitting diode (LED) screen and, if appropriate, report to a specific area. Ford can also rush to the scene and determine what step should be taken next, such as summoning an ambulance or calling a parent. During a "lockdown" alert, software can transmit the message directly to Nampa's police department.

The tags are not linked to individual staff members, but rather to the worker's role at the school, such as teacher, administrator or security personnel. The software links the tag's ID number is linked to that individual's location, so that as a tag moves throughout the school, the software displays a color-coded icon moving around a map of the site, representing his or her role. Ford has a unique color linked to the badge he uses, so that employees can always view his location within the two-building facility.

The system was set up in the following way, Ford reports: The red button indicates a general problem, such as an unruly student requiring assistance from security. That button has been used once since the system was taken live three weeks ago, he notes, when a teacher was concerned that a student might be under a narcotic's influence. Security personnel quickly reported to the room and were able to attend to the student, who was determined to be all right.

The blue button signifies a health-related emergency. If someone pushes that button, the school nurses receive the alert, as well as Ford and the administrative staff. That button has been pushed several times, he says, and has enabled a quick response to the individuals involved.

If a serious incident occurs, such as sounds of gunfire or a student being spotted with a weapon, a staff member pulls on the tag, causing an alert to be sent to all staff members via their tags. In such a scenario, the Ekahau software also directs the alert to a central police dispatcher, enabling an immediate response. While Ekahau's technology could trigger the automatic closing and locking of doors as well, Ford says he opted against utilizing that function.

Although the school's existing Wi-Fi nodes were sufficient to read tags throughout the buildings, Ford says, the school installed 22 Ekahau IR beacons in various areas, to better pinpoint the tags' locations. Each battery-powered IR beacon sends its unique identifier to the tags, which read that ID number and transmit that beacon's ID to the Wi-Fi access points, along with their own number.

According to Ford, the current installation is a pilot for the high school, but the district intends to transition into a permanent deployment by the beginning of the next school year. If funding allows, he notes, the district hopes to install the system at all of its schools.

"It provides empowerment for the teachers," Ford states. "My main goal is not just to do this at Skyview High School, or throughout the district or Idaho, but throughout the country."