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City Seeks to Boost Enrollment in Search and Rescue Program

A device can instantly help find missing dementia patients and children with autism who might wander off, but too few Cranston residents are enrolled, city officials said.

One of the biggest fears for parents of children with autism, or the caregiver of an elderly person who is suffering from dementia is the possibility that he or she might wander off.

No matter the circumstances, it's terrifying, especially on cold winter days when the chance of finding a missing person alive dramatically decreases.

That's why city officials are trying to get the word out about a new program launched last year that can make the search for a missing person last for a few minutes instead of hours, or even days.

It's called SafetyNet and it's offered by the LoJack company, best known for its automobile tracking devices that make it easier for law enforcement officials to find cars that are reported stolen.

So far, just one Cranston resident has signed up for the program, according to Leo Kennedy of the Cranston Fire Department.

"With the number of people living in this city that are at risk, we'd like to see many more people signed up," Kennedy said. "It can take a lot of time and resources to find someone who wanders off and this program can and will save lives."

A participant wears a small tracking device, not much bigger than a watch. In it contains data that instantly tells responders the persons name, age, address and phone number along with a photo.

Once someone is reported missing, rescue officials can quickly spread out using a special antennae and tracking device that can zero in on the transmitter's location. Local police and firefighters have been trained on the system and practice runs have shown that it doesn't take more than an hour to find the device, even when it was hidden in a local Dunkin' Donuts bathroom.

The tool can also help responders when they find someone on the street who appears confused — not just to track down people reported missing. Kennedy said a woman was found walking along Cranston Street and responders quickly realized she suffered from Alzheimer's and didn't know where she lived. 

"There was no way to find out, there was no way to search for her address or phone number," Kennedy said. "It took two hours to find a family member. Now, while we had her, she was safe and comfortable, but if she had the device, we quickly could have found out that information."

If only boosting enrollment was as easy as passing around a sign-up sheet. 

First, there's the cost. At about $30 per month, the service is financially out of reach for many cash-strapped families, especially those paying for care.

As a result, Kennedy and other people involved in the program are in the process of trying to find local organizations and benefactors who might help subsidize some of the cost for local families.

The other hurdle is simply getting the word out. So local officials said they'll be coordinating with the Cranston Senior Center, area churches and other places to make sure people know about the program.

Ralph Poland, law enforcement liaison for SafetyNet, said in Marshfield, Mass., where he is a retired police officer, the program has already been instrumental in saving lives. And it has been a huge money saver, too.

"The longest search we ever had with this equipment was 30 minutes," Poland said, noting that a traditional search can take hours and involve a huge percentage of officers on duty, helicopters, environmental police, and more.

Officials note that it's not just for dementia patients. The SafetyNet program makes sense for young children and children with autism or other disorders where they might slip out of view. Poland said a young girl, about 5, managed to unlock the front door of the house and showed up, naked, in the lawn of a nearby resident.

That resident gave the girl a blanket and saw the tracking device on her body (it can be worn like a bracelet, anklet, or even attached to shoes or a belt). When he read that number back to dispatchers, they instantly knew where she lived and how to get in touch with her parents.

Those types of rescues are called a "reverse find," Poland said.

To find out more about the program, visit www.lojack.com/safetynet or call 1-877-4FINDTHEM.

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