How to Quickly Locate Your Staff in Complex Physical Environments

In complex physical environments such as corrections, mental health and healthcare facilities, locating your staff quickly is about more than just efficiency—sometimes, it’s a life-or-death situation.

That’s why it’s so important to find a tracking solution that helps you locate your staff quickly, seamlessly and accurately. However, not all real-time locating systems (RTLS) are the same—and unless your service provider takes into account myriad elements such as signal tuning, propagation times, building density and lines of sight, you may find yourself with a system that’s inadequate for meeting your staff’s safety needs.

We’ll explore what factors to consider in researching RTLS options.

1) Propagation Times

When seconds matter, signal propagation times should be a primary concern. Some systems (none that we’d recommend using) can delay duress and other signals for up to 10 minutes. Propagation time needs to be fast. ATLAS, our dual-band RTLS solution, works to get signals from button press to User Interface (where a nurse or guard can see it) in 3.0 seconds.

There’s also a concern that, even with fast propagation times, in settings with competing signals such as hospitals with multiple X-ray and CT machines, duress signals could get lost in the noise. But a good RTLS solution solves that issue too. For example, when a nurse presses an alarm button as she’s confronted by an unruly patient, two dozen signals are sent out simultaneously, prioritizing the duress signal and quickly propagating it.

Battery life, effective tuning and locator redundancy are other key elements in ensuring a signal propagates quickly and efficiently.

2) Signal Density

Consider how frequently many staff members may be in an area at a given time. If staff are concentrated in an area, like in an ICU unit where a patient is coding, it’s of the utmost importance to avoid a situation where signals compete with one another.

If locators don’t know how to parse and prioritize signals, it could lead to delays. Locators and systems need to be able to handle a high density of data—we’ve seen systems that fail to propagate entirely when overwhelmed by a large concentration of duress signals.

3) Proper Tuning Matters

Systems like ATLAS allow for setting independent thresholds for receiving levels. That is to say, if you’re able to introduce some nuance into your locators’ tuning—what they “listen to,” and at what level—your system will be able to parse and handle a higher density of signals.

For areas where people may be concentrated in a non-emergency setting, like in a cafeteria, locators won’t be overwhelmed by listening to this concentration of signals—they’ll be tuned appropriately to the signal density without creating a choke point by relaying messages based on importance—not every one that comes through in first-in, first-out order.

The ability to properly tune RTLS locators is key to being able to quickly find staff in a complex environment.

4) Building Materials

We all know facilities, especially in mental health and hospital settings, can be extremely varied. A hospital may have "electrically thin" walls, like drywall, in some areas, which allow signals to bleed easily from place to place, making staff location difficult. For example, is the nurse in the hallway, or at the back of a patient’s room? Is she in the room across the hall? Proper locator density is essential to help locate staff members and get help quickly.

On the other hand, there may be other higher-security areas of that same building with “electrically thick” walls such as those containing metal, wire mesh, tight rebar or thick, moisture-retaining materials like concrete. These can keep signals from propagating because of their density, leading to delays or difficulty in finding staff.

A solution to this issue of—you guessed it, complex physical environments—is a dual-frequency system that allows backhaul signals to go long distances through a variety of building materials and a locating signal that can be precisely tuned to still give room-level detection even in drywall at a higher frequency.

5) When Verbal Comms Won’t Cut It

Walkie-talkies and audible commands can work in some situations, but they can fall woefully short for getting the right kind of help where it’s needed, quickly. And when seconds matter, you can’t rely on short-range walkies or a cacophony of voices to get help to an emergency situation.

Think of several patients in a mental health facility shouting at once in response to an alarming situation—that can leave a lot of room for error. Whose voice gets prioritized over the two-way radio? Will a care provider or staff member be able to shout above the noise?

Or, consider a patient in the midst of a mental health crisis. If a care provider needs backup but is only able to ask for it through a walkie-talkie, he or she may unintentionally escalate the situation. The solution? An RTLS solution that features easily accessible duress buttons that, when pushed, efficiently and inconspicuously alert fellow staff members, to quickly get an extra hand without putting the staff member or patient in danger.

6) Zones and Lines of Sight

Tracking coverage should be adjustable for different spaces. You don’t need the same level of coverage in a recreational exercise area as you need in a patient room. After all, you can physically see across an open space, and an RTLS system can “see” too—with nothing in the way, RTLS can pick up signals unimpeded. But other open areas, like warehouses, can get trickier.

Consider whether vehicles move around in that coverage zone. Or, if shelves, pallets or equipment are often moved. This can have an impact on how quickly you can locate staff—something may be in the way that deflects or absorbs a duress or simple location signal.

Also, if significant changes are made to a coverage area since your RTLS system was installed, especially major renovation like new walls, it can result in significant errors and delays in signal propagation.

Floor-by-floor zones can be an issue too. Without proper tuning and planning, a signal from the second floor could look like it’s coming from the first or third, for example.

Clearly designating your facility’s zones and establishing parameters around lines of sight—and adjusting your coverage should anything change in the layout of a particular zone—is critical.

The Final Consideration: Your Facility Is Unique—and Your RTLS Solution Should Be Too

If a plug-and-play RTLS solution sounds too good to be true, it is. Accurate, fast-acting and efficient systems take time and expertise to design and customize—no two buildings are alike, and no two RTLS solutions should be, either. The perfect RTLS system for your facility is one that takes several factors into consideration and is built to serve exactly your needs for locating staff quickly, no matter what type of environment.

Contact us anytime to learn more about ATLAS systems.