WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Gene Saunders spent decades as a Chesapeake, Virginia lawman. He recalls the days when his searches for missing people sometimes ended too late to save them.
"We have had searches where we found the person within a quarter mile and it took two weeks," said Saunders.
Times changed and Saunders enlisted old-fashioned technology beginning in 1999 to change with them. Today he runs Project Lifesaver from its Stuart headquarters. It is a non-profit company that works to help police agencies track "at risk" people--those with Alzheimer's disease, autism, and other cognitive impairments that can jeopardize their well being if they wander from home.
Saunders said, "We use radio telemetry, which is nothing more than following radio signals through a radio transmitter to a locator. It has been around since World War II and is highly reliable."
The radio tracking device resembles an old fashioned tv antenna, the kind you once put on your roof. It locks on to a signal being emitted from a radio transmitter, which resembles a watch and is worn by the "at risk" person.
Saunders says more than 1200 agencies around the country now employ the equipment from Project Lifesaver, including sheriffs departments in Palm Beach, Martin and Indian River counties. Saunders said, "I feel good. There have been 2500 people brought home safely (nationwide)."
NewsChannel 5's Michael Williams sat down with Polly Beard and her mother, Carrol Barney, recently. Barney suffers from dementia and she wears one of the watch-like radio transmitters. It is peace of mind for her daughter, especially after Barney wandered out of a doctor's office a few years ago, only to be found safely twenty frantic minutes later. Beard said, "If she ever did get out, they'd be able to locate her." Barney feels better too. She said, "I know I am alright. I know I will have no problem if I get lost or misplaced, or my goes which sometimes it does."
Proponents of such search tools are quick to caution they are no substitute for constant human vigilance and care. But technology does offer one more reliable lifeline if, and when, crises arise.