Story by: Chief Warrant Officer 3 Janet Schmelzer
Texas State Guard Public Affairs
When a hurricane, flood, chemical spill, wildfire, or other catastrophe strikes Texas, people may have to evacuate the affected area, often with little or no time to prepare. Their lives have been turned upside down: they do not know where they are going; they do not know when they will return, and sometimes families and loved ones get separated. They need someone to show them the way out of the danger zone to safety and comfort.
When support for evacuation operations is needed, the Texas State Guard is trained and ready. Guardsmen provide a very specialized skill set during an evacuation, operation of the Emergency Tracking Network (ETN). ETN is an electronic system that tracks evacuees from an evacuation hub to designated shelters away from the disaster area.
“One of the big lessons learned during the Katrina and Rita hurricanes was the need to track the location of thousands of people rapidly evacuating the strike zone,” said Col. Robert Hastings, Commander, Army Component, Texas State Guard. “In some cases, families were separated and ended up in different shelters with no means to communicate or locate each other. ETN was designed to prevent that from happening.”
The Texas State Guard is the principal state agency with the Emergency Tracking Network mission.
"Without a system of accountability, we would not know who we evacuated or which designated mass evacuation transportation they got on. With the ETN system, we have information which tracks the evacuee from an embarkation point to a shelter. Because we are trained on ETN, the Texas State Guard is performing a vital service to Texans who are evacuated during an emergency or disaster," said Staff Sgt. Greg Illich, 8th Regiment, TXSG.
At an evacuation hub, one of the first people that an evacuee will encounter is a member of the Texas State Guard. As evacuees enter the hub, guardsmen can answer their questions about what happens at the hub and show them where to register for transportation to a shelter. At the registration table, guardsmen begin the process of registering evacuees into the emergency tracking system. They can explain to evacuees how the system works to ease any concerns that evacuees may have about what will happen when they are registered into the system. Family members at the hub are registered at the same time. This process allows them to travel together and stay together at the same shelter.
"During an evacuation, we want to assist family members in this way. Keeping families together is comforting to them and helps ease their anxiety during this time of uncertainty," stated 1st Lt. Kendra Neuendorff, 4th Regiment, Texas State Guard.
As the registration process continues, guardsmen place a wristband on each evacuee. Each wristband has a unique identification number which is recorded into the ETN system along with the evacuee's information. Personal medical equipment, such as a walker or wheelchair, is also banded and registered into the system. And family pets are banded on the collar or travel kennel and evacuated to a designated pet shelter. In this way, families know that their pet will not be abandoned but sheltered and fed until they can be reunited.
"Sometimes pet owners are afraid to leave a pet behind and as a result are reluctant to evacuate. If owners know that their pets are going to evacuated, banded into ETN, and sheltered, they feel relief that their pet has not been left behind," commented Pfc. Sonya Martinez, 39th Regiment, Texas State Gaurd.
Guardsmen then direct the evacuees to designated mass evacuation transportation located at the hub. As evacuees board a bus, plane or helicopter, guardsmen scan the wristbands again to begin tracking their movement. The system records each individual who boards the transportation headed to a specific shelter. And when evacuees arrive at the shelter, guardsmen, for accountability, again scan the wristbands to log their location. ETN now has recorded the evacuee's travel from the evacuation hub to the shelter.
“ETN is a very versatile system,” said Hastings. “During Hurricane Harvey ETN was used to manage evacuations, determine population at the shelters, and keep track of pets and medical equipment, among other tasks. Keeping track of our evacuating citizens and helping families stay connected is one of the most important missions we train for.”