From The New York Times
January 21, 2007
Keeping Tabs on Accidental Wanderers
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.”
In the last few months, the Hudson County Sheriff’s
Office and the Fairfield Police Department in
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.
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
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 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
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
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.
While C. Lynn Centonze, the
“You can’t put a price on someone’s life,” Chief Centonze said. “If it saves one life, it’s worth it.”