How Hotels Can Play It Safe

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How Hotels Can Play It Safe

By Michal Christine Escobar - 09/26/2019

When it comes to staff security and safety, panic buttons are often top of mind for hoteliers. The concept behind the device is simple: an employee wears the button and pushes it when an emergency arises with the expectation that help will arrive shortly. However, as they have become more popular within the industry – hotel executives are finding that there is more to consider with this technology than one might think. For instance, does it track a staff member continuously or only after an alert has been sent? How accurate is it in determining an employee's location? What kind of hardware and network infrastructure adjustments might be needed to ensure it works properly? Who should respond to an alert: hotel staff or law enforcement?

To find the answer to some of these questions, Hospitality Technology spoke with a variety of staff alert technology experts – from hotel executives to security consultants to technology developers. Here is what we found out.

Keep It Simple, Private

In general, physical panic buttons are designed to be as simple as possible to use. While vendors have the ability to make them more complicated, hoteliers generally want the devices to be a single button that requires only one push to activate an alert. There's a very good reason for this. According to ReactMobile, in stressful situations, humans often lose their motor skills. So the easier it is for a staff member to call for help, the better.

While hotel staff workers actively asked for panic buttons to become standard within the industry, they also raised concerns about whether or not the technology would be used by management to actively track the worker's activity.

"Hotel staff labor unions have made it clear that panic buttons should not be used by hotel management to track an employee to see if they are working or not. That type of monitoring becomes a privacy issue and Sonesta Hotels agrees that employees have a right to privacy," says Katie Lee, director of hospitality systems, Sonesta Hotels (www.sonesta.com).

During its conversations with vendors, Sonesta Hotels found that most staff alert technologies will send a ping or a signal multiple times during a staff member's shift to simply show it is online and working. However, the technology does not begin to actively track a person's location until it has been activated. It then continues to track that staff member until the alert has been cleared.

Clarence Izzard,Global Director of Safety & Security, Marriott Vacations Worldwide (www.marriottvacationsworldwide.com), agrees, noting that his company only knows the location of staff members once they push their panic button.

"We wouldn't allow the button to track their every move," Izzard notes.

However, in the future, hotel staff members may be given the choice to opt-in to being tracked at all times. Why? Staff members could receive help faster if they were to personally suffer a medical emergency such as a stroke or heart attack, according to Polaris Wireless (www.polariswireless.com). If that employee is being tracked constantly, hotel management could receive an alert if the staff member is stationary for an unusual amount of time and could send someone to do a wellness check. In the case of a hostage situation, management could see one or perhaps multiple employees in the same area remaining motionless which would also trigger an alert and wellness check. 

How Does It Work?

When it comes to safety technology, having plenty of options to choose from is a great thing. Thankfully, there are many players in the location tracking industry. Here is just a small sample of how these types of technologies can work within a hospitality environment and what kind of enterprise technology considerations hotel executives should give thought to before implementing any one type of solution.

Polaris Wireless offers hoteliers location technology that provides floor level accuracy in multi-level buildings without having to install hardware such as beacons. Its technology works with smartphones and their biometric pressure sensor to know which floor a staff member is currently on when calling for help. Polaris Wireless also offers a hybrid location engine. If an application uses its cloud-based API, it can leverage the data from that application and pass it along via cellular or Wi-Fi networks. Then staff member location can be narrowed down to within a two-room radius.

Assa Abloy (www.assaabloy.com) provides location technology that leverages the cloud and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology to provide the room and floor location of staff members in distress. Each employee is equipped with their own alert device. When pushed, the device emits a signal which is picked up by the nearest BluFi Gateway. This information is then conveyed via the cloud to emergency responders via text message.

React Mobile provides geolocation technology in two different ways. For hotels that are more cost conscious, it integrates with any other platform the hotel is already using. For example, many hotels use a software solution that has housekeepers report which room they're about to clean or provides a list of rooms and the order they should be cleaned throughout the day. When the panic button is pushed, React Mobile is able to pull this information from the software and locate the housekeeper. While this solution is more cost effective, it is dependent on the housekeeper accurately self-reporting where they are or will be at all times. React Mobile also integrates with hardware, such as access points. When the panic button is pushed, the company can determine which access point is closest to the distress signal and use that information to find the staff member. React Mobile also can place beacons in guest rooms. These don't require any hardwiring, drilling, gateways or servers. Using an adhesive backing, the beacon is placed in a closet or bedside table, and when the panic button is pushed, React Mobile knows exactly which beacon they're closest to. These beacons typically cost about $1 per room.

Tech Requirements

As hoteliers consider the different type of staff alert technologies, one thing they should keep in mind is the type of building their hotel company most often uses: A sprawling series of buildings with few floors per building that require staff to move from building to building outside or a single compact building with dozens of floors that requires staff to use elevators, stairways or basement floors.

"We have campus-style buildings with outdoor needs," Lee says. "So we have to make sure staff is covered not just inside but also when they're outside the building. Some staff alert solutions are Wi-Fi based which could be problematic for us. If our outdoor Wi-Fi coverage isn't good enough, we might not be able to find them during a situation and that could be a point of liability."

Lee believes that a hybrid solution that uses Wi-Fi or beacon technology as well as GPS to locate staff members will likely be the best solution for Sonesta's properties. Why? When staff members are indoors, they would be covered by the signals created by hotel infrastructure. When staff members walk outside, GPS takes over as it can safely assume the team member is on the ground.

Similarly, Marriott Vacations Worldwide also tends to have campus style properties. But it also needs to take into consideration the location of its properties as some are in fairly remote areas where technological dead zones can be a real problem. This requires that the company be fairly flexible with each individual property, allowing each one to deploy whatever solution will work best for it – whether it’s a single platform or a hybrid solution.

Safety Depends on Training 

Once a hotel implements location tracking technology, it must also take the time to train staff on when and how to use it effectively.

"If you install a safety technology for hotel staff (or guests), you need to know what you're going to do in an emergency," says Peter Klebanoff, principal/consultant, PointersRidge LLC. "If you don't have a procedure in place to respond to an alert that comes in, you've only made the problem worse. You given staff the expectation that they'll be rescued when they won't."

To help hoteliers out, many technology vendors provide training to hotel staff after the initial technology deployment. But it is then up to hotel management to ensure all new staff members are well-trained.

A well thought out training program will educate staff members on the different types of possible security incidents, how to call for help, how to escalate the call when necessary through the management structure and how to push notifications to the necessary individuals, says TrakNprotect (https://traknprotect.com). 

After establishing protocols and procedures for dealing with an emergency situation, hotel staff should practice their emergency response similar to a fire drill. This will ensure every team member knows their role when an emergency occurs, says PurpleCloud Technologies (https://purplecloudtech.com). Another best practice includes having at least one team member on every shift who is certified in CPR and First Aid.

Not only will training reduce uncertainty of an employee's role during a real emergency, it also lowers the amount of false positives that occur during the first few weeks of the tech rollout, React Mobile says (https://www.reactmobile.com).