From The New York Times

 

January 21, 2007

 

Keeping Tabs on Accidental Wanderers

By DEBRA NUSSBAUM

 

ON a dark, rainy evening last fall, a 78-year-old man with Alzheimer’s headed out the front door of his home in Morris County, N.J., and started walking toward a grocery store. His frantic wife, having walked downstairs and realized he was gone, called the Morris County Sheriff’s Office to report him missing. Twelve minutes after officers arrived at the house, they found him almost three miles from his home.

 

The man was wearing a special electronic bracelet from a nonprofit company in Virginia called Project Lifesaver, and Sgt. Moire Reilly of the Sheriff’s Office credits the program for that rescue and a half-dozen others in the county in the past three years.

 

Project Lifesaver began as a program to help elderly residents but has been expanded, especially to autistic children, and its bracelets emit a radio signal that can be tracked by special police equipment. Police officials say that having the bracelet can greatly speed up finding a missing person.

 

“This is so valuable, and it gives the caregiver some peace of mind,” Sergeant Reilly said.

 

“If it had not been for the bracelet, we would have had to deploy 50 to 100 people to find him,” she said of the 78-year-old.

 

And the risks for those not in the program who wander off are great, she said. “The people will end up getting hurt,” Sergeant Reilly said. “They won’t look both ways to cross the street. They are very fragile and may fall and need help.”

 

Sixty-six Morris County residents have the tracking devices. Project Lifesaver is now used in all 21 counties in New Jersey, and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office on Long Island just became the seventh agency in New York to use it. It is not in use in Westchester County, and Connecticut is one of only 10 states that do not have Project Lifesaver.

 

Suffolk County, which gets about 100 calls a year about people having wandered away, acquired the equipment at the end of last year and has begun making the electronic bracelets available. “We thought it was a great product,” Sheriff Vincent F. DeMarco said. “The whole key is finding people fast.”

 

In New Jersey, 26 law enforcement agencies use Project Lifesaver. This spring, the Gloucester County Sheriff’s Office will be the last of the state’s 21 sheriff’s offices to add the program, said Edward V. Rochford, the Morris County sheriff and president of the Sheriffs’ Association of New Jersey. It will make New Jersey the first state to install the system voluntarily in every sheriff’s department. (Vermont requires it, he said.)

 

In the last few months, the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office and the Fairfield Police Department in Essex County started the program in New Jersey. Several other departments, like the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office, have offered it for four years, but expanded coverage last year to children with autism.

 

Ocean County has had the system since 2003 and has rescued four people wearing the devices, all within five minutes of the authorities’ arrival, said Lt. Michael Osborn of the county Sheriff’s Department.

 

Monmouth County, which has had the program since October 2003, has rescued five elderly people using Project Lifesaver, each taking less than 30 minutes, Sheriff Joseph W. Oxley said. “It’s been a phenomenal success,” he said.

 

The idea for Project Lifesaver originated in 1998 when Gene Saunders, now its chief executive, was a member of the Chesapeake Police Department in Virginia. “I went on a number of searches for Alzheimer’s patients, and some ended well and some did not,” he said.

 

In 1998, Mr. Saunders saw a brochure from a sheriffs’ conference about radio tracking devices. “It had to be better than what we were doing,” he said. In the past, Mr. Saunders said, the plan was for the authorities to “start pounding the ground and hope you’ll run across them or a clue or some tracks.”

 

In 1999, he bought the tracking equipment with the help of a grant from a local hospital and began running the program for the Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office as a volunteer. Some ensuing searches were completed in as little as five minutes, he said.

 

In 2001, Mr. Saunders retired after 33 years in the Police Department and started Project Lifesaver. There are now 558 agencies participating in 40 states and Canada, he said, with about 22,000 people wearing the bracelets. There have been more than 1,450 rescues, and no one wearing the tracker has been found seriously or fatally injured, he said.

 

Project Lifesaver says the average rescue time for people using its equipment is 26 minutes. The average time without the bracelets is nine hours, Mr. Saunders said.

 

The equipment carried by law enforcement officers can track from about a one-mile radius on the ground and five to seven miles from the air.

 

Many departments have not had to use the equipment often, but officers do not seem to regret buying it and paying for the training, which together cost about $8,000. Clients pay about $10 a month for the bracelets and battery changes, although local agencies sometimes subsidize the fee for the bracelets.

 

In Bergen County, which has had the program for four years, two people, both elderly, who were wearing the bracelets have been found, both quickly, said Ben Feldman, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman. “It’s rare it’s called into action,” he said, “but it gives people a peace of mind.”

 

In the past two years, many sheriff’s offices have expanded the program to autistic children. Mr. Saunders said a federal marshal who had an autistic child had suggested that the equipment could be very helpful for those who are autistic and might be prone to wandering away.

 

It is too soon to know how many autistic individuals will use the program and how successful it will be, said Paul A. Potito, the executive director of the New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community, but he supports the project. “The potential is tremendous, and a lot of our people tend to wander off,” he said.

 

But keeping the bracelets on a person with autism can be difficult because some are very sensitive to what they wear, Mr. Potito said.

 

About 15 people in Middlesex County, N.J., half of them children with autism, have the bracelets, the Sheriff’s Office said. Officers have not had to use the equipment and have concerns about how it will work in such a highly populated area, Sheriff’s Officer Sandy Mackiewicz said. One child and one elderly person got the bracelet off, she said, but “it is a sense of security for some people.”

 

One benefit of the bracelet has been a greater sense of security for the caretakers of Alzheimer’s patients, said Barbara Rutan, director of client services for the Monmouth County Office on Aging. About 30 of its clients use the device. It gives the caretakers comfort that any missing Alzheimer’s patient will be found relatively quickly, Ms. Rutan said.

 

In Fairfield, the police started the Project Lifesaver program after the local Women’s Club said it would pay the $8,000 start-up costs. “We felt it was a very worthwhile project,” said Jeanne Restuccia, the club president. The club had read about the program and wanted it in Fairfield, she said.

 

While C. Lynn Centonze, the Fairfield chief, said that while she did not expect the system to be used a lot, she thought it was necessary.

 

“You can’t put a price on someone’s life,” Chief Centonze said. “If it saves one life, it’s worth it.”

 

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company