Playing Tag

Our EMS operations are full of processes. Some of our processes are designed in ways that make them prone to losing or misplacing things big and small–like backboards, radios, oxygen cylinders, supplies and medications. Some of those things require preventive maintenance, replacement after expiration dates or periodic inspections. This is the process of “asset management.”


The design of our EMS supply processes makes us prone to running short or completely running out of the things we need. We have to look at the contents of jump bags, patient compartment cabinets and the other interior and exterior compartments. We also have to look in the stations, support service area and main offices. We have to take inventories to determine if anything at any level needs to be restocked, place orders, receive orders and finally, gather and distribute the ordered materials. If any step is missed, the “supply chain” for that item breaks. Managing these steps is called “supply chain management.”


Asset and supply chain management are areas in which other industries are way ahead of EMS. However, this is not one of those areas where EMS is so unique that best practices from other industries can’t be readily applied to EMS.


One of those best practices that could prove beneficial to EMS is the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. You’re probably familiar with RFID tags as the hidden chips inside keycards that unlock doors to secure areas, attached to clothing and other items at stores for theft prevention, and found in some types of “swipe-less” credit cards.


There’s an ever-growing variety of RFID tags for different purposes, in many different shapes and sizes and sold in a very broad range of prices. This article will describe some of the different types of RFID tags and provide some examples for how they can be applied to EMS processes. Then, I hope your imagination runs wild and you think of even more ideas for ways that RFID technology can help EMS operations work more effectively and efficiently.


Tag types


There are two broad types of RFID tags–passive and active. Passive tags do not have a power supply and therefore have limited range and an extremely limited ability to be “read” through materials like clothing, flesh, wood and metal. These passive tags can be quite small and lightweight.


In contrast, active tags use a power supply, usually in the form of a tiny battery. By boosting the power to transmit their data, active tags have a greater ability to penetrate through materials and can have a longer range. The stronger the signal transmitted by the active tag, the more it can penetrate and the further it can reach. However, a stronger signal requires a more powerful (and therefore bigger) battery.


Operating frequency: The frequency on which the tag operates will also affect its ability to penetrate materials. In general, low-frequency tags have more penetration ability, but a shorter range. High-frequency tags have less penetration ability, but a longer range.


Data capacity: Different types of tags will have different amounts of data they share when they are read by a scanner or “reader.” On the low end, they might just need to show an inventory number. On the high end, they might need to hold a patient’s medical record, or perhaps even more.


Specialty tags: RFID tags are available in many configurations that incorporate different types of technologies. The following is a partial list of options for specialty tags:


“¢ Ultra-long range: Transmits a signal that can be detected a mile or more away;


“¢ Active tags with battery conservation: Conserves battery power by only sending a signal intermittently;


“¢ Motion sensor: Transmits if a motion sensor is triggered;


“¢ Temperature sensor: Transmits temperatures when a specified temperature is reached;


“¢ Tamper triggered: Transmits if the seal is broken;


“¢ Panic button: Transmits if a panic button is activated;


“¢ Accelerometer: Transmits g-force data; and


“¢ Input/output (I/O) tag: Can interface with other pieces of equipment for truly custom configurations.


When considering which type of tag to use for a particular purpose, you should find the best combination of tag frequency, passive or active data transmission, data capacity and specialty function capabilities. For active tags, consider the battery size and life. This is where having a knowledgeable and versatile supplier will be important.




There are several ways you might use RFID tags to improve EMS processes.


Supply chain management: Imagine a scenario in which equipment and supply items throughout the ambulance have RFID tags attached to them. This might include small sealed containers of supplies (such as a bin of IV catheters or an IV start kit). It could also include larger bulkier items or almost any piece of equipment. With the cost of some simple types of RFID tags at just a few cents, there are a broad range of items that might be considered practical and cost-effective for tagging.


To inventory a vehicle at the start or end of a shift, crews can simply walk around and through their EMS vehicle with an RFID reader, which will log the presence of each tagged item into back-end software. If using passive tags, you will have to open bench seat compartments, exterior compartments, etc., to make sure the tags can be read, since passive tags can’t penetrate thick wood or metal compartment walls.


The RFID reader is connected wirelessly to a receiver station. The receiver station connects directly to a computer running the back-end software. Alternately, it may connect to a network and server where the back-end software resides.


When the RFID is used for inventory control, the back-end software compares the list of what was found on the ambulance or rescue unit by the reader to the list of items that are supposed to be there and tells you what is missing. As you restock the missing items, they’re scanned at the vehicle to move them from the supply room inventory to the vehicle inventory.


The software can be configured to trigger an order to replenish the inventory for an item when the supply room inventory count drops below a specified level. This basic idea can work for individual stations that do their own restocking or the centralized restocking systems often used with ambulance operations that utilize dynamic deployment.


Asset management: EMS operations need to track where equipment items are located, when they need scheduled maintenance, when expiration dates are approaching or have been reached, etc. Attaching RFID tags to equipment items, with that item’s individual information, can simplify how this all takes place. When doing inventory for supply chain management, the asset management features can alert you to due dates for scheduled maintenance, drug expirations, etc. Therefore, you will often find RFID software systems set up to do both supply chain and asset management.


Patient tracking: RFID technology can be brought into your mass-casualty management process. Imagine a triage tag with an RFID chip attached or embedded inside. The crew can associate triage tag No. 12345 with John J. Jones. As Mr. Jones moves from the triage area to treatment areas, to transport areas and into local hospitals or released, his tag can be read and his status in the database logged and time-stamped at each step of the process–with minimum writing or typing.


Personnel tracking: RFID tags can also be added into an incident command process to improve tracking of personnel. Fire crews entering and exiting a structure can be logged. Using stronger-signal, active tags and multiple readers, the software can interpret RFID tag signal strength from multiple readers to triangulate the approximate locations of personnel inside a building in real time.




If you give it some thought, you can probably think of even more ways for using RFID tags. As this technology becomes more common, the cost will continue to fall and the variety of tags will continue to increase. It will be up to you to decide when the benefits and savings will make the investment worthwhile for your specific department and its specific needs.

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