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An RFID Port in a Storm

When hurricanes or other emergencies force people to leave their homes, Texas is ready to track the evacuees from transportation points to destination shelters.
By Jennifer Zaino
Jun 23, 2008—Texas is no stranger to deadly storms, including the Galveston Hurricane that killed more than 6,000 people in that city in September 1900. No other single hurricane has been as fatal—in Texas, or in the entire United States—but plenty of other hurricanes have struck the Gulf Coast in the intervening years, killing hundreds and causing billions of dollars worth of damages.

The Galveston-Houston area, in fact, was ranked among the top-ten U.S. mainland areas most vulnerable to hurricanes in 2006 by the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University in Miami. Just one year earlier, half the residents in the Houston area fled during the approach of Hurricane Rita, the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. That late September hurricane came on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, so thousands of Louisiana residents who had been evacuated to facilities near the Texas coast also had to flee from the danger.

Upon arrival at a shelter, an individual passed through an RFID portal that's lightweight and designed to be set up in minutes.
As Rita bore down, state officials and emergency workers tried to manually track all the evacuees, but the situation was chaotic. Many Louisiana residents had arrived in Texas without personal identification or medical records, and with various medical complications. They and Texas special-needs residents (individuals lacking the means to evacuate themselves) were moved by bus to inland shelters, but those facilities soon became overwhelmed. When the storm shifted east, evacuees from areas near the Louisiana border, such as Beaumont and Port Arthur, were diverted four or five times before they could be accommodated.

"It was a difficult operation to track," says Gordon Wells, program manager at the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas in Austin and a member of the governor's Emergency Management Council. His staff provides the information technology used by the governor's Division of Emergency Management for response and recovery operations. "It was confusing for bus drivers who began to self-direct to alternate destinations," Wells says. "We had to send state troopers after buses to guide them to the correct destination. Logistically, it was a difficult situation for the state to control."

Clearly, something had to change. A task force on hurricane evacuations, convened in 2006 by the state's governor, Rick Perry, recommended the development of a more efficient tracking system for special-needs evacuees on state-directed transportation. Wells and representatives of various state agencies, who were responsible for architecting and integrating the tracking system, decided it should include various technical components: GPS units on buses to track them en route, as well as bar codes and RFID technology to automate the processes of enrolling and processing evacuees, their medical equipment and their animals from transportation hubs to shelters. "Pets are always a part of Texas' evacuation procedures," Wells says. "Many people won't abandon their pets, and they are reluctant to evacuate if their pets can't come."

The goal was to know the movements of persons, objects and assets during emergency evacuation operations, in real time, so the state's emergency management agency personnel have a clear picture of response efforts.

"To respond effectively, they must know, in real time, the status at each evacuation point, transportation hub, fuel point and reception center," Wells explains. "RFID allows you to link entire databases to assets or individuals being transported from place to place, and it's a fairly simple procedure, at least conceptually, to tag people with RFID, bar codes or a combination of both, which we used, and be able to trace the progress during an evacuation from phase to phase."

The system was funded through state agencies using a portion of the federal public health grant funds money available to Texas for emergency response efforts, including the care of special-needs persons during a crisis. The governor's office directed the distribution of funds and managed the procurement of the technology contractually. The initial cost of the system was $4.3 million, with maintenance and operating costs likely to be paid through general revenue or other federal funds directed to the Division of Emergency Management.
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