-Joe Pleshek

I was somewhat surprised by the amount of negative publicity generated this fall by the plan to use RFID in schools in San Antonio, Tex. Looking back, the decision to deploy RFID in the Northside Independent School District wasn’t thoroughly vetted. As a result, it created a fair amount of anti-RFID sentiment in Texas and beyond.

The articles and protests condemning the use of RFID continued for several weeks after officials first made public the decision to use RFID to track student attendance. RFID technology has made great strides in overcoming privacy concerns in recent years, but the strong outcry in Texas underscores the need for further education.

It’s understandable that the idea of embedding an RFID chip to a student’s backpack or lanyard might cause some initial consternation for those who are unfamiliar with the technology. Those who don’t understand how RFID works or its benefits can easily subscribe to the “big brother is watching us” theory and cry that civil rights are being violated.

However, RFID tags aren’t being used to track these students in negative ways. They do not track the path they took to arrive at school, (although excellent solutions exist to ensure the safety of students on school busses) or how long they spend in a restroom.

It’s important to remember that the read range for most passive RFID solutions is only a few meters. No identifying information, such as names, addresses or date of birth is stored on the typical RFID badges used for school solutions.

Officials in Texas wanted to use RFID primarily to verify attendance records so that the school district could qualify for increased grants based on attendance numbers. According to published reports, the school district stands to gain an additional $2 million in funding by increasing attendance figures at the high school and middle schools where the RFID system was deployed.

I can’t help but think that many of those speaking out against the RFID program in San Antonio would be among the first to request answers if a natural disaster or some type of incident required the immediate evacuation of students. Without RFID, it would be difficult to determine whether all students and faculty were evacuated from the building.

Alternatively, school officials would have an instantaneous record of who left the building if students carried RFID-enabled lanyards. It’s no different than the solutions used in the construction and mining industry that allow officials to know the exact location of workers during emergencies.

The devastating tragedy in Newtown, Conn., provides another example of how RFID could have helped. First responders at the chaotic scene would have had immediate access to which students and staff were still in the building, and where they were located. Several media outlets reported that some staff members were found hiding in closets hours after the incident concluded. RFID would have helped emergency teams to locate them sooner.

Educational efforts for RFID need to emphasize much more than how the technology can benefit school systems and provide parents with the knowledge that their students are safe. Industry and local governments pursuing the use of RFID must stress that RFID saves lives. In the case of a mining accident, rescuers would not be asked to risk their lives by entering a dangerous environment to search for workers when RFID systems have verified that all workers escaped.

Relatives of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease typically have no problem attaching an RFID-enabled wristband to their loved ones to ensure their safety and prevent them from wandering away from a facility. RFID bracelets typically sound an alert if a patient leaves a facility, and the bracelets contain the person’s identification, caregiver contact information, and medical issues.

Likewise, the happy parents of new babies seldom think twice about the RFID-enabled wristbands placed on newborns to ensure that infants are not wrongly removed from the nursery. The technology makes it nearly impossible to switch babies. Although rare, a pair of babies was temporarily switched earlier this month at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minnesota when a baby was as accidentally placed in the wrong bassinet in the nursery. The baby was breast fed by the wrong mother, and will now require a year of medical tests for HIV and hepatitis. According to published reports, the mother of the other baby had to wait 20 minutes for her newborn to be located.

Many times RFID is an underlying contributor to current technology already in place. Wristbands at hospitals have become so commonplace that they are seldom questioned. Eventually, this will likely be the case in all sectors as the general public gains a greater understanding for RFID’s benefits, and as the technology becomes embedded into solutions like hospital ID wristbands that are accepted as everyday solutions.

In the meantime, the educational process must continue.