Texas Turns to RFID for Emergency Evacuation System

Texas has a new emergency evacuation system that features RFID wristbands to identify evacuees when they arrive at secure shelters. Mobile computers, bar code scanners, GPS, and wide-area wireless network technology also help track evacuees.
Published: January 3, 2008

This article was originally published by RFID Update.

January 3, 2008—The next time a hurricane threatens Texas residents, RFID will help get them to safety. The state’s Governor’s Division of Emergency Management (GDEM) has implemented its new Texas Special Needs Evacuation Tracking System (SNETS), which uses RFID wristbands to identify evacuees.

When the GDEM calls for an evacuation, it dispatches buses to pre-designated collection points. Evacuees make their own way to the collection points, where they receive wristbands that include a unique ID number that has been pre-encoded into an RFID tag and bar code. State emergency workers scan the bar code on the wristband using a handheld computer, and enter the evacuee’s personal information. The transaction associates the evacuee with the unique ID number, and the information is transferred over the AT&T/Cingular wireless network to a state database at a secure location. Evacuees then board the bus, which is tracked by GPS, and are driven to a secure reception center.

RFID reader portals are set up at the reception centers, which include the Alamodome in San Antonio and other large, well-known facilities. As evacuees enter the shelter, they pass through the RFID portal, which reads the wristband and records their safe arrival. The state database is again updated in real time over the wireless network.

The AT&T/Cingular network was chosen because voice and data are communicated over separate networks, and voice networks tend to bog down during emergencies because of high call volume. The handheld and portal readers store data in the event the network is down and automatically forward it when they next detect wireless coverage.

The system has been used successfully in three mock evacuations but has not been used in an actual emergency. Officials started to deploy it last year during Hurricane Dean, but called off the evacuation when the storm changed course.

“The results of our full system tests were 100 percent RFID read rates at the reception centers,” Kenny Rattan of Radiant RFID told RFID Update. Radiant designed and provides the combination bar code/RFID wristbands used in the system and worked with lead integrator AT&T on the project. “This will save the state a lot of time. When they get a call that says ‘My grandma lives in Corpus Christi. Did you get her out?’, they’ll quickly be able to say ‘She’s in a safe location.'”

“We are confident that the statewide emergency evacuation tracking system will not only help save lives and effectively ascertain the location of the displaced citizens, but it will also provide the state with the ability to update the families of the evacuees and effectively allocate search-and-rescue resources,” GDEM chief Jack Colley said in AT&T’s announcement. “The RFID solution will improve the GDEM’s command-and-control management of large-scale disasters within the state by enabling officials to efficiently allocate valuable emergency resources.”

Cost and congestion were the main reasons the state chose to identify evacuees by bar code at collection points and RFID at reception centers, according to Rattan. There are many more collection points, so the state went with lower-cost technology. RFID was ideal for reception centers because it could easily handle the high volumes, and fewer systems were needed.

“When buses arrive at a shelter, there may be 500 people arriving at about the same time that need to be processed. Using RFID reader portals requires a lot less labor than it would take to scan the bar code on each individual wristband,” said Rattan. “We went with UHF technology because of the range. Most wristband systems use high frequency (HF), and there’s a lot of debate about whether HF or UHF is better for wristbands. UHF was best for this system because it provided the range and speed to accurately identify multiple people passing through a portal simultaneously. Plus, it allows the workers to keep their eyes on the crowd instead of looking down to scan wristbands.”