GPS aids wildfire evacuees

AddThis

A statewide evacuation coordination system developed by a UT professor using the latest technology was recently recognized by the International Association of Emergency Managers for its use during the Bastrop wildfires.

Gordon Wells, research associate at the UT Center for Space Research, designed the system in 2006 in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in order to improve the coordination and tracking of hurricane evacuees.

During Katrina and Rita, the state experienced problems with losing track of the buses used to transport evacuees to alternative shelters after the main shelters became full, Wells said. The new system, called the Emergency Tracking Network, is designed to solve this problem by monitoring residents at every step of their evacuation.

“The Emergency Tracking Network ensures that the locations of evacuees are continuously monitored from the time of their enrollment at transportation hubs along the coast through their sheltering and return home,” Wells said.

The system achieves its accuracy by using GPS tracking and radio-frequency identification wristbands to locate and identify evacuees across a network accessible to the Texas State Guard and local county authorities. The RFID wristbands allow evacuees, pets and equipment to be easily scanned and enrolled into the statewide system.

“The system is designed to monitor the movement of up to 140,000 evacuees,” Wells said. “The exact location of an evacuee can be determined instantly even when traveling on an ambulance or bus.”

According to the Cockrell School of Engineering press release, the Emergency Tracking Network uses the Texas Advanced Computing Center’s servers and databases to store the information of evacuees.

During the recent Bastrop wildfires that destroyed over 1,000 homes, the Emergency Tracking Network was used to facilitate the evacuation of residents to emergency shelters.

Blake Clampffer, assistant emergency management coordinator for Bastrop county, said tracking the evacuees is an important part of the process and emphasized the role of his department in letting people know about the need to evacuate.

“Our sheriffs, deputies and firefighters went door-to-door and street-to-street announcing the evacuation,” Clampffer said. “We also sent out National Weather Service alerts and used Facebook and Twitter to alert people.”

Clampffer said his department facilitated the evacuation of 5,000 people within several hours of sending out the alerts.