Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.E-mail: email@example.com
With the Gulf Coast reeling from Hurricane Katrina and the body count mounting in Mississippi, Harrison County Coroner Gary T. Hargrove turned to an entirely new use for radio frequency identification tags: to identify and track the dead.
RFID chips, tiny cylindrical tubes that look like grains of rice, are used in cell phones, at tollbooths, to tag pets and on ID badges. Hargrove and the U.S. Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team implanted the chips in the arms of hurricane victims. They could then read the tags with a scanner, enabling them to catalog the remains efficiently, reduce identification errors and return storm victims to their families quickly.
The tags can be read only by a scanner and once the 16-digit number is read, it is entered into a secure online database that stores the victims' information, including identifying marks, height, weight, hair, eyes and clothing.
It was fortuitous for Hargrove that the technology was available. VeriChip, the company that supplied the tags free to the county, had approached DMORT about using the chips and got interest from only one regional team leader. That leader adopted RFID chips in three counties in Mississippi. After the tags proved so successful, Texas officials asked VeriChip to pre-deploy several scanners and chips to the coastal area in advance of Hurricane Rita.
Companies have been developing and marketing RFID chips to the medical community as a way of tracking patients and connecting them to their medical information. Hargrove believes that where there are extensive casualties, RFID chips provide the best technique to get people's loved ones back to them in an efficient and fast manner.