North Carolina Corrections Department Tracks Radios with RFID

Published: June 14, 2024
  • North Carolina Department of Adult Correction is tracking thousands of radios for officers across 100 facilities.
  • With an RFID tag embedded in the radio, the agency has a digital trail of each device when being used, repaired or discarded.

At corrections centers, one of the key tools of the trade is the radio that keeps officers and management in communication with each out. These radios are often distributed in the thousands across numerous facilities within a system, sometimes assigned to an officer, and sometimes they get dropped.

The North Carolina Department of Adult Correction (NCDAC) is managing the location and status of thousands of such handheld radios using an RFID technology solution from Entigral Systems, and UHF RFID tags from HID Global. It tracks when radios are assigned to a corrections center, and when they are damaged (for instance a broken screen), sent to maintenance, and then repaired, reused, or discarded.

The corrections agency, headquartered in Raleigh, has oversight of about 30,000 incarcerated prisoners as well as 84,000 supervised offenders on probation or parole. It is challenged with managing about 50,000 radios used by guards and officers as they go about their work in facilities across all the state’s 100 counties. Tracking all radios, traditionally, was a manual process, with heavy cost related to labor.

Finding an Automated Solution

RFID is enabling the NCDAC to keep an eye on these radios however—when they are sent to specific correctional facilities, or to the maintenance site—and thereby reducing manual labor required for tracking them, while also reducing the risk of loss.

With the manual tracking process, NCDAC workers wrote down radio serial numbers as the devices were transported or serviced, to ensure that radios were in good working order and didn’t go missing. The agency had created a homegrown database system with Microsoft Access, but NCDAC needed a way to automatically track them in.

The department reached out to Entrigal, which offers its TraxWare inventory and asset management system. The agency chose to use a hybrid solution with UHF RFID and barcodes, to capture data that is then managed by the software.

Creating a Unique Solution

When Entigral began working with the agency in Raleigh, “we came in and did a discovery to determine where the radio touch-points were, where we need the technology and what technology to use,” recalled Allen Bennett, Entigral founder.  The result is a system that employs both barcodes and RFID to identify radios at each point in which they are assigned, transported or repaired.

The technology company found a spot on the backside of the radios where an RFID tag could be placed under the plastic cover, and a barcode sticker could be attached to the exterior. In that way users could scan the barcode when commissioning the radio into the management system, then associate that barcode with the unique ID encoded on the RFID tag.

That link could then be stored in the TraxWare software, along with other details about the radio such as its maintenance requirements or where it is being assigned.

The solution required some innovation in tag size to ensure that it fitted properly under the plastic of the radio cover. The tag not only needed to be small, it had to perform reliably and be protected from the harsh environment the radios are exposed to.

The agency already had a working relationship with Vizinex, an RFID tag company that has been acquired by HID Global. They chose the HID Sentry 4607 UHF RAIN RFID on-metal tag with a 13-foot read range. The agency is using Honeywell RFID desktop and handheld readers and has tagged 15,000 radios thus far.

How the System Works

When a corrections site requests radios, the tagged devices are scanned with a barcode reader and that serial number is linked to the site where the radio is destined. The tags are not read at the prison where they are sent.

As the radios require repair, they are sent to a Raleigh repair and preventative maintenance area. Radios are sent back to the maintenance site in Raleigh are sent in batches, often piled together in crates. When the crate is received, it can be placed on a desktop RFID reader, updating the status of each radio that indicates it has been received, and where.

When the same radios are shipped back to a corrections center, the same process captures the RFID tag ID again and updates each radio as being returned to that site for re-use.

In some cases, a repair job goes to a third-party vendor and the RFID is read when it leaves for that site, and when it returns. “We’re always keeping a local bread crumb [trail] of the last place where we saw this asset,” Bennett explained.

Answering What, When and Where

Additionally, RFID handheld readers can be used to capture inventory counts, look for a missing radio and its status, such as waiting for parts

“We use it to track a radio inside of a room to better understand where it’s at, who had it last, and what was the last thing done to it,” Bennett said. Ultimately the agency wanted to be able to track where the radios were, when and what their status was. As a result of the RFID system, officers are getting their work done faster but preventing loss of radios that just disappear.

The data also helps NCDAC gain analytics about radio use, understanding if the corrections facility at one particular county may be a rougher on radios than others. Official noted trends where certain counties have twice as many repair requirements than the others.

Making Maintenance, Audits Easier

Thus far the system has eased the workload for officers by providing a more seamless maintenance process and improved ergonomics dur to no longer having to type in serial numbers.

The system enables NCDAC to track and map specific radios to their specific purpose. “All of these radios look identical and, even in one prison facility we have to track it based on the ID that’s in that radio and the person using it by their position number and their name,” explained Bennett.

Looking ahead, the NCDAC plans to expand RFID use to all of its standing assets that are in facilities. This will include adding 6,000 vehicles over the next five years with RFID equipment to enable the agency to automatically detect as soon as each vehicle enters or leave through a gate.

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