RFID Protects 911 Center From IT Emergencies

By Claire Swedberg

To prevent its electronic equipment from being damaged due to excessive heat, El Paso County's 911 facility is using active tags with temperature-tracking sensors.

The El Paso County 911 District, in Texas, serves more than 700,000 residents. Operators working there process more than 45,000 emergency calls every month.

In May 2009, Ray Perez, the district's assistant director, was enjoying his wedding anniversary with his wife in Las Vegas when he received a call informing him that the temperature within the 1,300-square-foot equipment room of the county's 911 facility was nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The room houses 8-foot-tall racks of telecommunications equipment, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system that includes cabinets storing 42 batteries, and servers that operate the county 911 district's e-mail, BlackBerry and administrative networks.

One of the room's two Liebert cooling units had failed due to a malfunctioning fan, and it wasn't until a 911 staff member happened into the room and noticed the temperature rise that it was addressed. Mechanical technicians had to be called in, and fortunately managed to prevent serious damage to any of the room's electronic equipment. Because there are multiple cooling units, however, the 911 service's ability to operate had not been in jeopardy.

Once back in his office, Perez began seeking a solution. Ultimately, he selected an RFID-based system from RF Code that tracks the temperatures in the facility's equipment room and offices, and sends an alert to Perez's and other staff members' BlackBerries in the event of a temperature fluctuation beyond the preset acceptable threshold.

The 911 call center—which also includes a communication room where workers receive and process emergency calls—is located in the three-story, 50,000-square-foot county building, where it occupies approximately half the space on one floor. The remainder of the site is used for administrative offices and storage. The equipment room requires that the temperature remain between about 69 and 77 degrees.

To control the entire building's temperature, the center maintains seven Liebert cooling and heating units, as well as 12 Trane units, on the roof. Traditionally, before the RFID system's deployment, if any of the equipment failed, Perez or another staff member would have to notice the problem and adjust the units' controls accordingly. "I'm on call 24-7," Perez says, noting that if someone did detect a problem, they would then inform him by phone.

One board member of the El Paso County 911 District was familiar with RF Code's work, and suggested Perez give the company a call. "My main concern was to be proactive rather than reactive," he says. He wanted a system that could alert him immediately if a unit failed or anything else caused a temperature fluctuation—long before that incident could damage IT equipment or create some other problem.

It took RF Code two days in June to deploy the system. The company installed a total of 13 active 433 MHz RFID sensor tags in the equipment, communications and administrative rooms, as well as two readers, one on each side of the building.

Ten of the 13 tags have built-in sensors that measure the temperature and use a proprietary air-interface protocol to transmit that information every 60 seconds, along with a unique ID number, to one of the two RF Code readers, with a range of up to 150 feet. (Although the tags also have sensors for tracking humidity levels, Perez says, such a capability is not needed in arid El Paso.) The readers—one in the equipment room and another in the communication room—then send the data to a back-end server located in the equipment room, via a cabled connection. Three door tags were also attached in the doorways of the equipment and communication rooms, to detect when a door is opened.

RF Code software, loaded onto the county 911 district's e-mail server, then interprets the tag and sensor data. If the temperature level at any particular location exceeds the acceptable threshold, the software notifies the appropriate staff members, via e-mail. Perez receives a message on his BlackBerry stating, for example, "environmental alert, temperature reading over 77 degrees," and that message continues to be sent until the temperature returns to the required level. If he again receives the warning approximately one minute after the first one, Perez says, he knows the problem needs to be addressed.

In addition, RF Code software makes the sensor data available online to authorized users. Consequently, Perez can log onto the county's Web site and view the current temperatures at all locations within the building, as well as the environmental history of any specific sensor. The sensors link to specific locations in the building, Perez says, and he knows exactly which Liebert or Trane unit controls the temperatures for each spot. Based on what he sees on the system, he explains, he can immediately know which unit needs to be investigated, or simply turned on.

The system not only spares Perez and his coworkers from having to receive emergency calls at odd hours, it also protects equipment from heat damage, and prevents strain to the Liebert and Trane units if, for instance, one unit fails and another goes into full-power mode to compensate. "This puts stress on the other unit that is working properly," Perez says.

"I think it's important to get as many productivity tools as I can get," Perez states, "and if there's anything a manager needs, it's keeping track of temperature. Temperature management—whether it be for equipment or people—requires additional aids to assist in providing that 'magic' that everyone takes for granted. So whatever additional controls or aids are available to make our working environment acceptable, the better for all of us to work comfortably."