A new lifesaver for those prone to wandering

Sheriff's Department adopts technology for locating at-risk individuals


BENNINGTON — The Bennington County Sheriff's Department has a new method for locating people who engage in wandering — a potentially life-endangering behavior for those with disorders like autism or Alzheimer's disease.

Four members of the department received training this week in Project Lifesaver, which provides a system that enables locating of people prone to wandering. The person wears a band that emits a frequency specific to that person. Officials use locators that pick up on the signal — both handheld devices and vehicle antennas — to find the person.

This is the first time the sheriff's department has received this training. The department hasn't recently had a program to help locate people who wander, said Lloyd Dean, lieutenant with the sheriff's department.

"With more and more baby boomers retiring, we have numerous nursing homes we certainly do not want to lose any of our county residents," he said.

Having a system like this is important for safety and peace of mind for caregivers and loved ones, said Melissa Stemp, social worker at Project Independence.

This training emerged out of Stemp's conversations with Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt. She got in touch with him because her own organization had a family who is caring for a dementia patient, and needed a program like this.

"The needs of our families extend beyond our walls," Stemp said. She said she believes others in the community are in need of this technology, including some Project Independence does not service.

Staff from the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office in New York conducted the two-day training Monday and Tuesday, which involved training on the locating equipment and learning about how to respond to people with special needs, primarily those with Down syndrome, autism and Alzheimer's disease, William Weick, deputy sheriff investigator with the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office.

Tuesday, the participants worked on a live drill to locate Chris Ronca, of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office, through a transmitted signal at Willow Park.

They started at the gazebo — to signify a missing person's last known location.

"Just try to kind of hone in on him," Weick told the participants, divided into groups of two, with one person holding the locator — a large orange-and-silver handheld device.

They traveled down the hill past the gazebo and behind the playground.

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Within about five minutes, they'd found Ronca — on the other side of the snack bar.

"The hardest part of the whole thing is getting that initial chirp," said Weick, referring to the sound that signifies a person's signal is within range. "It's not really going out miles and miles. So we don't we really have that distance. [But] once they get that chirp, you're definitely going to [find] that person."

The average time from responding to the person's last known location to locating them is under 30 minutes, Weick said.

The technology is guaranteed to work within a one-mile radius, but could work up to three miles, he said. Weick said he'd also heard of the technology working up to five miles with a helicopter.

Organizers had multiple other drills planned for Tuesday, including a more involved effort where participants would use transportation, he said.

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Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization, provides law enforcement, emergency personnel and caregivers with a program designed to protect, and when necessary, locate individuals with cognitive disorders who are prone to wandering, according to the organization's website.

According to the website, there were about 17 Project Lifesaver rescues between April 2 and May 5 this year.

Those involved in the program pay a $315 one-time fee for equipment, including a band that the person wears 24/7 for 60 days, Ronca said.

Every 60 days, the sheriff's department will provide a new band, Weick said.

The band, which can be worn on the wrist or ankle, transmits a frequency that is unique to that person, enabling locating them if necessary.

The Bennington County Sheriff's Department will get one handheld receiver and one rooftop antenna to enable location of people who sign up for the program, Ronca said.

Dean said the department currently has no plans to buy more equipment.

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"We're going to see, as needed," he said. There are also currently no plans to train more members of the department.

"[We] haven't got that far yet," Dean said. "The whole idea was — let's get this training on board."

The department needs to get a policy in place on use of the program, and then officials will come up with a plan to implement it county-wide, he said.

"We need to get all our ducks in a row," he said.

He said the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office would provide the application they use for the program, which the Bennington County Sheriff's Department can modify to its needs.

When people sign up for the program, identifying details are provided, including if that person has a tendency to wander to a specific spot, Weick said.

Ronca has been trained in the program for three years. Only two days after he first got trained, he put it to use.

"It was for a gentleman with Alzheimer's," Ronca said. He was located about three miles from his home in minutes.

The program requires that those signing up have 24-hour care, he said. That's because of the distance constraints of the technology.

"You don't want somebody that's home for eight hours alone a day," he said. In that situation, by the time someone sees the person is gone, they could be miles away — far beyond the signal range, he said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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