Thermal imaging for temperature screening is a risky option

By Charles LeBlanc

More impacts to consider

Additional operational impacts to consider regarding temperature monitoring include
1. How will deployment of this system impact traffic flow, queuing, and staffing for the facility? 
2. Are policies developed to implement temperature monitoring? 
3. Are any policy and employee contract modifications needed to deploy temperature monitoring? 
4. Who will monitor the temperature systems? 
5. What are the monitoring parameters? (I.e., what is the temperature threshold?) 
6. What will be the responses when the technology identifies someone for further screening? 
7. Who will provide the initial and verification screening? 
8. What happens when a person is not allowed to enter the facility

Responses to these and other operational considerations may further limit acceptable technology and implementation options

As businesses and organizations prepare to re-open following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, security and safety specialists are scrambling to create solutions that may assist in the safe return of people to offices, schools, etc.  One such potential solution is the use of thermal imaging technology at entrances to screen people for fevers – one of the measurable symptoms of COVID-19.  

This application uses telethermography to compare a person’s surface skin temperature with a reference source to determine if that person has an elevated temperature. The evaluation and integration of this technology into security applications is new and the application has not yet proven practical and reliable.  

While some products may provide practical solutions for small temperature/fever monitoring applications, many products marketed as solutions may have limited capabilities and significant limitations. When manufacturers quickly develop products to meet a new and immediate need, buyers should thoroughly verify the product performance will meet the manufacturers’ claims.  Remain cautious of technology companies seizing on opportunities such as the current pandemic to sell niche products that may generate profits for them but fail to meet manufacturer performance claims or, more importantly, lead to costly investments without achieving goals. In addition to being undertested, many of these thermographic solutions are not intended for high-traffic areas like building entrance lobbies and may cause excessive queuing, require additional staffing, or lead to other unacceptable operational conditions. 

In order to expand the availability of telethermographic systems in response to the pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has temporarily suspended regulations of these systems not normally intended for medical purposes. The FDA suspension has allowed manufacturers to develop and introduce products utilizing technology that might normally be scrutinized by the FDA, but now necessitates that buyers of those products more thoroughly scrutinize them. Also, it is not clear whether these newly developed products and technologies will require FDA classification and approval as medical devices once the emergency is over and regulations return. The FDA’s current recommendations for their use include but are not limited to: 

  • The accuracy range of thermal cameras used for screening should be less than or equal to ± 0.9°F over the temperatures spanning 93.2 -102.2°F 
  • The system should include an accurate blackbody temperature reference source (a device that provides a known temperature reference source in the field of view for thermal drift compensation and calibration) 
  • Thermal stability and drift are less than 0.36°F over a timeframe specified by the manufacturer 
  • Elevated body temperature should be confirmed with secondary evaluation methods, such as a clinical grade contact thermometer 
  • Only one person’s temperature should be measured at a time 
  • Labeling of devices to help users understand and properly use the device and associated technology 

Regardless of the FDA’s current or future actions, caution should be taken when considering implementing thermal imaging technology as a security screening measure. As manufacturers continue to push this innovative solution, technical and practical concerns must be addressed, including: 

Finite differences in temperature. Much of the existing thermal technology used in the security industry does not have the temperature resolution to successfully monitor the minor temperature differences associated with fevers. 

Full integration capabilities. Thermographic technology that works for other purposes in other industries must be adapted for security applications (e.g., device locations, infrastructure access, support software, integration with security systems, etc.) and this process has only recently begun. 

Environmental control conditions. Many application and environmental control conditions (e.g., distance from sensor to target, varying ambient temperatures, excess clothing, wide variations in factors that might affect body temperatures) create challenges for deploying this technology for security purposes. 

Lack of fully developed software. Software must be fully developed to ensure sensors provide appropriate feedback. This software is now in the early development stages and may have severely limited features, user interface challenges, and general performance problems common in early software revisions. Some of these problems can cause significant operational challenges and overhead that offset any advantages of the technology. 

Regulatory compliance. Adhering to compliance regulations such as privacy, HIPAA, and labor contracts may also lead to legal challenges as there is often controversy when introducing any biometric technology in security products. 

Owners who are addressing their concerns with COVID-19 as they prepare to re-open their businesses or schools need to exercise caution with this new, minimally tested application. A hasty adoption without thoroughly considering the complex process of implementing a temperature/fever detection system – and the impact it will have on a facility’s operations – may lead to a potentially significant investment that does not achieve its intended goals. 

BEST PRACTICES TO IMPROVE SECURITY

Until thermal imaging technology catches up with screening requirements and is sufficiently tested and proven to be reliable, owners can implement current industry best practices for lobby control and screening. These include:

  • Developing clear policies and procedures regarding screening and communicating those policies to staff and visitors. Pre-screening should be included in the policies and procedures to empower staff and visitors to verify their own health before arriving to reduce the number of people requiring further screening.
  • Reconfiguring lobbies to funnel traffic through observable screening points. The configurations will need to be flexible to accommodate screening procedure and technology changes. The concept might be similar to TSA screening at an airport but obviously less restrictive.
  • Designating areas for additional screening
  • Training staff to passively watch for visual signs of illness in individuals (e.g., body posture, body movement, facial expressions, eye and skin tone, etc.) that can help identify those who may require thorough screening
  • Training staff in anger management and de-escalation techniques to reduce stress and frustration often associated with screening processes
  • Providing isolated areas where those selected for further screening can continue to work while waiting to be cleared to enter the facility. The areas could be designed to provide for rapid cleaning between use.

IMEG’s security team can provide more information on this topic and other measures to keep your staff and building safe. Learn more about our services or contact the author below.