Safe Reopening– Smart Occupancy Tracking

Brought to you by Bill Moten
LEDG Smart Buildings Practice Leader and
Reopening Technology Specialist
bam@ledesigngroup.com

We’ve all seen the maximum occupancy signs in elevators, restaurants, clubs, and public buildings. Occupancy limits are the number of people that can safely be in a space in case of an emergency and evacuation.  The codes are defined by the International Building Code (IBC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Occupancy limits were applied before COVID-19, and before, most of us  heard the term “social distancing.” Today, smart occupancy tracking is more important than ever.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe social distancing as a set of “methods for reducing frequency and closeness of contact between people to decrease the risk of transmission of disease.” Everyone knows this to be the six-foot rule. Keeping six feet from everyone will reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 via droplets from a sneeze or conversation. We all have that one friend that needs to be told, “say it, don’t spray it.” The six-foot rule is changing many common social standards like shaking hands, hugs, exchanging business cards, mass gatherings, and more. How do you maintain six feet from people when heading back to the office, campus, or store?

You do so by limiting the occupancy to allow for more space between people. Government requirements, mandates, and institutions’ reopening guidelines are redefining the allowed occupancy for stores, buildings, offices, transportation, restaurants, manufacturing, universities, and more. Some places are 25% of their maximum allowed while others are 50%. The elevator that had a maximum occupancy of ten is now four. People are waiting outside the hardware store waiting their turn to go in once the “social distancing ambassador” says it’s ok to enter.

As states and cities begin to reopen, these places of business are struggling to understand and manage real-time occupancy rates. Restaurants and bars are struggling to maintain the reduced limits and have been threatened with revoked liquor licenses. Buildings and businesses can be fined and have their letter of occupancy suspended if they violate new occupancy regulations. There are many ways to track occupancy, some high-tech, and some low-tech.

The most popular low-tech occupancy tracking method is to have someone at the front desk or door, counting the number of people going in vs. going out. Larger venues with multiple entries are using people to manually click a tracker app on a smartphone to keep track of occupancy. These systems may work in general but are prone to mistakes, not to mention the additional cost of hiring people for this job. I guarantee that I was not counted when entering the hardware store because the “ambassador” was distracted by a person asking for help.

When it comes to high-tech or smart occupancy tracking solutions, there are many techniques to consider.  In many cases, businesses already have the technology; they need to use it in a more advanced way. It’s always best to start with what you have and plan for what you need. Some WiFi access point systems can detect people based on wireless connections and built-in sensors. Access technology like card readers can also assist in tracking who’s coming and going. Cameras can also track, count, and locate individuals.

Dedicated occupancy tracking solutions are available as well. These tracking solutions are typically placed around the workspace in the ceilings and above doors. By using directional sensors, people counting and movement throughout the building and office area is possible.  Technology-based occupancy tracking will enable analytics of behavior patterns as well as space utilization. For example, keeping track of how often and how many people are using the meeting rooms and bathrooms can enable demand-based smart cleaning.

While the maximum occupancy of a building, room, or elevator is a regional mandate, occupancy tracking policies are set by businesses, especially regarding data anonymity. The identity of people in occupancy tracking solutions can track anonymously or directly. Facial recognition, assigned tags/badges, cell phones, and other active solutions support tracking the personally identifiable information (PII) of its occupants. Of course, businesses can operate active tracking with anonymity if that is their policy. Passive monitoring by sensing the presence of people is inherently anonymous.

The final step is to document and share the occupancy data. It’s good practice to document the occupancy history to aid in record keeping for reporting, auditing, and proof of compliance. Sharing real-time occupancy information with employees, visitors, and customers provide them with knowledge of their current environment and destination. For example, digital signage around the building or campus can display the occupancy status of meeting rooms, office area, cafeteria, or lobby. This information will empower people to make safer decisions throughout their day. Occupancy information and alerts can be made available via digital signage, smartphone app, web, or SMS.

Analysis of occupancy data allows the prediction of people flow and space utilization patterns and can help business owners manage staffing, cleaning, optimum signage placement, and space availability. For example, if a building or store is at 100% capacity, data analytics will predict the wait time and display that on the digital sign, so people will know how long they will have to wait before entering.

Thanks to smart occupancy tracking solutions, building owners, facilities managers, businesses, and universities can ensure compliance with local regulations. The ability to share both real-time and predictive occupancy status with employees, visitors, students, and customers provides a sense of trust that their health and safety is imperative.

Need help with reopening? Check out our reopening services and email me at bam@ledesigngroup.com with questions.