The evolution of the ID badge

Take some wireless communication technology, throw in some RFID chips and shake them together with other digital technologies into a small wearable device. What do you get? A new generation of ID devices suddenly emerge that can fulfill multiple purposes — and that defy classification.

June 1, 2009
By Rosie Lombardi

Every company has its own needs in ID badging for its employees, says
Robert Burns, senior regional VP at G4S Canada. “There’s no typical
solution,” he says.

Pharmaceutical and aerospace companies, for example, are concerned
about access control that segregates employees by role. “They don’t
want engineers in the finance area, and vice versa. So they go for
colour-coded, role-based badges so you can tell staff apart — it’s like
the different coloured shirts in Star Trek.”

Many organizations have specialized security needs beyond the
straightforward access control provided by the ubiquitous photo ID
badge. Hospitals, universities, prisons and other large organizations
with multi-building campuses and personal safety concerns are turning
to solutions that combine many technologies into one identity device.

Virtual guardian
One example is the Escort system developed by Bosch Security Systems.
In 2007, the Hotel Dieu Grace Hospital (HDGH) in Windsor, Ont.
implemented the wireless help call system with the help of system
integrator G4S Canada. “It’s basically a mobile panic button,” says
Wally Dowhayko, security manager at the HDGH.

The wireless system allows hospital staff to send an emergency signal
to the central security control console via a small pendant they wear.
When the distress button on the pendant is activated, it emits a signal
that can be used to locate and track the person’s movements on a campus
map to direct security personnel to the scene. It also sends emergency
alerts to video surveillance screens monitoring the vicinity.

“Each person gets a specific signal that tells me who and where they
are when they press the button, and all our 2000 staff wear a pendant,”
explains Dowhayko.The hospital’s entire four-acre campus and
five-storey parking structure is covered by the system, and there are
no blind spots in elevators or basements where the pendants won’t work,
he adds.

A horrific crime committed at the HDGH’s premises provided the impetus
for the implementation, says Dowhayko. Like many inner-city hospitals,
the HDGH must deal with a wide range of routine crime. But the 2005
murder-suicide of nurse Lori Dupont
, committed by her ex-lover doctor
in a hospital recovery room shocked hospital administrators into
action. “We had security and workplace violence issues to deal with,”
says Dowhayko. Nurses’ associations across the province called for
better security measures at all hospitals.

Many hospitals and other organizations already have the IT
infrastructure needed to beef up their security with an Escort help
call system, says Burns. “You don’t need a wireless system for it,
although you do need a separate security LAN that’s highly reliable. In
fact, we prefer not to use wireless LANs due to potential signal

The pendants cost about $50 per unit, but it boosts staff safety
substantially, says Dowhayko. “We get about 20 calls per month,
although they aren’t all emergencies. Sometimes, it’s to help deal with
uncooperative psychiatric patients.”

They also eliminate the need for standalone panic button system
embedded in walls, which streamlines security. “We pulled those out, as
there’s no need for two systems,” he says. “They just set off alarms in
a geographic area. But the pendant tells me where a person who’s
activated it is within 20 feet, their name and picture come up
on-screen, and alarms and strobe lights are activated on their floor.”

In addition, the pendants can also be used for other applications such
as asset tracking. This further fortifies the business case. Dowhayko
says the HDGH is using it for this purpose in several areas. “We have
about 50 infusion pumps with pendants inside, so we can locate them
instantly instead of spending hours looking for them. And we’re also
looking at installing them in laptops used for bedside reporting.”

Many hospitals are looking at RFID technology for asset tracking, he
says. But the IT infrastructure used for the pendants can serve beyond
security. “You have to set up the same infrastructure to do one or the
other – you need receivers, transmitters and triangulation to pick up
this stuff. You can get a system that only does asset tracking, but we
went the next level, and got two systems in one.”

In Ontario, the St. Joseph’s Health Centre is also implementing the
Escort system, as are some seniors’ residences, says Burns. In the
U.S., the system is getting significant traction in correctional

Educational institutions are also eying the pendants as concern about
campus violence escalates, he adds. “American universities in
particular are using them as a selling point with parents when they
tour the facilities. Administrators reassure them their daughters are
safe with the pendants even if they have night classes.”

The pendant technology continues to evolve, and is now being converged
with video surveillance, says Burns. “This doesn’t exist yet, but very
soon, we’ll be able to merge CCTV, video analytics and the pendant
systems. For example, we could take all the high schools in the Toronto
area and connect them to a central security point. All the schools have
video systems now, and coupled with pendants, you would get economies
of scale by integrating these technologies.”

Swiss army knife of badges

Other vendors are offering even more combinations of features in
next-generation designs. San Juan-based Vocera Communications offers a
wearable badge that is a combination walkie-talkie, pager, cellphone,
intercom and panic button, says president and COO Brent Lang.

“There’s a real desire for a reduction in the number of devices mobile
workers use,” he says.  “And the system is designed for people who use
their hands, so it uses speech recognition for voice commands – you
don’t need to dial.”

About 15 Canadian hospitals have implemented the system, including the
Toronto East General Hospital (TEGH), Kingston General Hospital, and
the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  Lang says the system is gaining
traction in other sectors such as hospitality and manufacturing.

The badge is meant to be shared by staff within a department rather
than being assigned to specific individuals. “It’s not meant to be used
as a permanent ID, as the identity of the badge changes based on who’s
using it,” he says. “Staff typically pick one up from a charging
station at the beginning of their shift, and the system associates
their names with their user profiles stored on the server until they

The Vocera system has advanced voice communications features that can
be programmed to suit an organization’s needs. Callers don’t need to
know a specific individual’s name – a voice command to call the
housekeeping or security department will find the first available
member in the group. In a crisis, calls can be sent to various groups
to mobilize staff or issue instructions. If the panic button is
activated, a no-speech call is automatically sent to security, and the
sounds in the immediate vicinity are audible. “So if a nurse is talking
to someone who’s just pulled a knife, security can hear everything
that’s going on,” says Lang.

A Wi-Fi infrastructure needs to be in place to implement a Vocera
system, he says. “You need pervasive wireless coverage for the entire
facility, and you also need a dedicated server in the data centre that
hooks up to the existing PBX phone system on-site.” Staff need to be
within the Wi-Fi area to make or take internal and external calls, he

Some hospitals are using Vocera to fortify their business cases for
wireless infrastructure. The TEGH, for example, had begun a project to
implement wireless infrastructure, says Rocky Prosser, manager of
protection services and emergency management. “It would have taken
three years to complete it, but Vocera speeded things up — we were able
to fund the project in conjunction with the Violence in the Workplace

Although no specific incident drove the move, Prosser says the number
of assaults is on the rise in the health care sector. “A nurse is more
likely to be assaulted than a police officer, according to the Ontario
Nurses Association’s statistics,” says Prosser. About 300 devices were
recently deployed at the TEGH at the cost of about $350 per unit, he

The hospital is currently integrating Vocera with its nurse call system
so the system looks for a specific nurse instead of relaying the call
to the nurse’s station. “It hunts for the next available nurse if
there’s no answer. Giving patients the ability to call their own nurses
first is increasing our patient satisfaction levels substantially.”
There are also different tones for emergency calls to distinguish them
from routine calls, and each group sets its own tone, he adds. “You can
program the system to do almost anything.”

There are some issues to consider, says Prosser. “We wanted 100 percent
coverage, so we put receivers every three to four feet — but the
devices don’t work in elevators. However, we have surveillance video,
so we would catch any problems there.”

Since not all staff have a badge, the Vocera system doesn’t replace the
old panic button system embedded in the walls, he says. “We still need
them – and some of them alert external agencies so police can respond
at the same time that we do.”

The Vocera system complements existing security and communications
systems, and most staff still carry their ID cards, pagers and
cellphones, he says. “But it’s hard to put a price tag on all the
intangible benefits we get beyond security — we reduced security
response time and patient wait times, makes staff feel safe, improved
communications, and decreased errors.”

Vocera is eyeing new features for next-generation badges, says Lang.
“We’re looking into tying the badges into RFID location-based services
so staff can do voice queries to locate the nearest wheelchair or other

But one last piece of convergence still hasn’t been tackled in either
of these multi-purpose devices: neither Vocera nor Escort replace the
ubiquitous photo ID badges that most employees use for physical access
control. “The technology could be converged, but most hospitals already
have a photo ID system in place. And it would be hard to put photo ID
on small devices,” says Burns.