Runners’ bar codes help health, safety officials

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BOSTON (AP) – When the more than 22,500 runners hit the street for the 110th Boston Marathon on Monday, they’ll be unwittingly teaching public health and safety officials how to better respond to mass casualty events like Hurricane Katrina.

All runners will have a bar code on their bibs that will allow organizers to track them using handheld scanners should they require transportation or hospitalization during the race.

The immediate goal of the runner tracking system is to make sure organizers don’t lose any participants during the 26.2-mile event that stretches several towns from Hopkinton to downtown Boston. But public health officials say it’s also a real life test to see how victims of natural disasters or terror attacks could be tracked through medical tents and shelters.

“We’re lucky in some ways that we have this annual mass casualty event that just happens to be in our backyard,” said Nancy Ridley, associate commissioner for the state Department of Public Health. “The goal is to track and connect.”

Unlike the electronic chips that many road races use to follow runners along the course and document their time, the bar codes on participants’ bibs are meant to track people off the route and make sure they don’t get lost in the health care system.

“It’s not uncommon at the end of the day to have hundreds of family members knocking on the tents trying to figure out where their runners are,” said Chris Troyanos, the medical coordinator for the Boston Athletic Association.

“It’s one of the biggest problems for us.”

Ridley said the marathon provides perfect training ground to test a patient tracking system, something federal and state officials have been talking about more and more since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

“Down in the Gulf, for example, what was happening was that you might have thousands of people being treated all over the place but there was nothing that fed that back to a central repository to try to connect people together or connect them into support systems,” she said. “People were getting lost after being plucked from roofs. Something like this could help.”

If the runner gets sick or drops out of the race, his bib bar code will be scanned when he walks into a medical tent by a staffer with a wireless device. Forty-eight scanners are being dispatched for Monday’s race at medical tents and hospitals. After the runner’s identifying information – name, gender and age – appears on the handheld’s screen, the tent staff will note his basic medical need.

No specific medical information will be stored in the system.

If the runner is treated and released at the tent, he’ll be scanned on the way out to note that he’s left. If he’s transferred to a hospital, that also will be documented on the device, which feeds the information into a larger system.

Unregistered runners or spectators that need help will be given a wristband with a bar code.

Family and friends will be able to go to an information kiosk near the finish line and ask if their runner has sought medical help.

“Everyone running the race knows they have family at the end waiting, hoping everything’s OK,” said runner Mark Spencer, 49, of Andover. “This is nice in that you know no matter what happens, someone will know where you are and how you are, and could find you if needed.”

Safety officials can also dip into the information. If they see many people are dropping out of the race at a certain mile-marker they can check if there’s any hazardous condition at the location, said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Medical staff can also sort the data by injury or tent to make sure certain supplies don’t run out.

The technology is being financed through a grant from the federal Health and Human Services Department. Ridley said each state has been told to come up with plans for patient tracking or other measures that would help emergency response in natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

In a good year, there are about 800 to 900 runners in the Boston Marathon who require medical attention. In a bad year – when outside temperatures spike – as many as 1,700 people have needed aid, Ridley said.

“I’ve dropped out in the past and had to wait a long time to hook up with family and friends,” said David McNicol, 45, of St. Andrews, Scotland, who will run in his 11th Boston Marathon Monday. “This sounds very positive and useful to have a record of you along the way.”

AP-ES-04-13-06 1745EDT

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