WiFi Based Personal Alarm System Going Live at Napa State Hospital

Department of State Hospitals CIO Jamie Mangrum says that before his department embarked on a project to implement a new personal alarm system for mental hospital staff members, he spent most of his time like many other CIOs, planning to upgrade to new versions of software and other predictable, desk-bound activities.    When the Personal Duress Alarm System (PDAS) project started last October, department staff made him stand in the middle of the 487 acre Napa State Hospital (NSH) campus at the place where psychiatric technician Donna Gross was strangled to death by a patient in 2010.    Mangrum described it as an indoctrinating moment when he clearly understood the threat of violent attacks on campus and how technology would play a role.

"We roll out desktop technologies.  You don’t normally roll out technology that literally has life or death consequences.   So all the decisions involved and how you look at things is completely different," said Mangrum.

Jamie Mangrum, CIO, Department of State Hospitals

Next week, the $4.6 million PDAS project will go live in Napa with its campus-wide alarm system that requires staff to wear a device to track their location throughout the complex. The Wi-Fi tag, which hangs from a neck lanyard or clips to a belt, also allows staff to sound an alarm to hospital police officers and nearby staff members. The system has been operational in the hospital’s secure treatment area since August and will be completed with full coverage across the vast facility.

With a 92 percent forensic population, most patients in the state hospital system have committed a violent felony.   The department also runs the Sex Offender Commitment Program for sexually violent predators.  In 2010, with approximately 6300 patients across the 5 state mental hospitals, there were 4594 aggressive acts toward staff and 9374 toward other patients.

Before PDAS, Napa State Hospital had a personal alarm system confined to program buildings and courtyards which could not be expanded.   The new system utilizes RFID tags, beacons and an expansive Wi-Fi network that is integrated with the hospital’s existing data network.

Personal Alarm Device

There are more than 1100 wireless access points across the campus.    The department hired AT&T and subcontractors Cisco, Net Xperts and Ekahau to create a system using off-the-shelf components and software.

According to Mangrum, it is not unusual for personal alarms to go off 100 times in a day.   He described an incident he witnessed at NSH on a soccer field where his and other executives’ devices went off resulting in staff running out of nearby buildings calling out the name of staff person whose alarm was triggered, followed by a swarm of campus police officers arriving on bikes and in cars.     To avoid distraction and be most effective, the system only sets off other devices near the duress call for staff to work as first responders for each other.   The incident turned out to be a false alarm but a timely demonstration, he said.

The project’s implementation was not without controversy. In August, NSH staff voiced concerns about the use of a lanyard that could be used as a strangulation device, according to a Napa Valley Register report. To resolve the issue, a NSH staff person single handedly created a three point break away lanyard that will both sustain a pull to activate the device’s alarm and break off when tightened around the neck. The lanyard is currently being produced onsite at NSH and will be used for all campuses.   "The new design was the linchpin to moving the project forward and  achieving success," said Mangrum.

Goals of the new system include incident notification to staff and security personnel within 10 seconds, and to accurately locate an employee’s position within 5 meters.

The department currently has plans to expand the PDAS project to its other hospitals in Atascadero, Coalinga, Los Angeles, Patton, completed in two phases by 2015.

Bill Maile was editor of Techwire from 2011 to 2016.