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Project Lifesaver: Technology helps authorities find missing people with autism, dementia

Posted at 6:12 AM, Nov 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-13 18:42:05-05

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — It's been said, seek and you shall find. However, every once in a while, everyone needs a little extra help. This includes Port St. Lucie Detective Kristin Meyer, who vividly remembers one of her first "saves."

“I’m running between houses and I’m trying to get the ‘beep’, trying to get the beep. I’m yelling, ‘This is where the beep is the strongest!’”

Last year, Meyer and her colleague located a 75-year-old man with Alzheimer’s in a drainage ditch, out of sight and far from his home.

”He was totally and completely out of sight. We would have never found him had it not been for that bracelet,” said Meyer.

RELATED: High-tech tool, Port St. Lucie police find missing child on autism spectrum

That bracelet is a Project Lifesaver device, and it helped Meyer located the man in 20 minutes, steps away from two different bodies of water.

“It is about the equivalent size of a watch. It emits a non-audible radio signal, and that’s what we pick up when we try to go and find the person,” said Meyer while showing Contact 5 investigator Merris Badcock how it works.

More recently, Meyer and her team were able to use the device to quickly identify a child reportedly wandering alone. The child was non-verbal, but because of the Project Lifesaver device, Meyer knew exactly which family to return him to.

(Scroll down to find out how you can register yourself or a loved one for a Project Lifesaver device.)

Autism, dementia, Alzheimer’s: these are just some examples of cognitive disorders which can make people more prone to disorientation or cause them to wander away from home or loved ones.

That characteristic could cost the individual their life.

“Oftentimes with autism, individuals don’t have that safety awareness,” said Jacquie Wood, a clinical support specialist with Florida Atlantic University's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). “They might enter the water and they don’t know how to swim, or they might walk into traffic without paying attention to the fact that there are cars coming.”

Since 2015, across the state of Florida, at least 18 children on the autism spectrum wandered away from home or a loved one and died, according to reports from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

DCF only investigates child deaths reported to their agency.

”It’s scary because you see on the news everyday there is this child that ran away and they didn’t get him in time,” said Lantana mom Rosenora Valcin.

Both of her children have autism. “They are my life. They are everything to me,” Valcin told Contact 5.

She knows the struggles of autism, which include communication failures and missed social cues.

“But the biggest thing? Safety,” said Valcin. “Those kids, they don’t understand danger.”

Valcin remembers the first time one of her sons wandered away from home.

“I was right there in the bathroom...and suddenly, I turn my head and I saw the front door was wide open. I rushed outside and he was just gone.

“I’ll never forget this day. I cried for the whole day because i thought my baby, my baby was just gone.”

A neighbor found her son Nathan getting ready to cross a busy intersection. He recognized the child and brought him home to Valcin. That same day, Valcin started researching tracking devices online and discovered Project Lifesaver.

Through FAU CARD, Valcin received devices for both of her children at no cost.

“I can’t stop them from running away, but if they ever did, I can call the police and they will know what to do,” said Valcin.

Officers like Detective Meyer feel the same sense of relief. “I believe in this program. When someone goes missing, I can’t go home. I just can’t go home. It’s not right, so this program is really important to me.

The technology helps officers find people who wander, so that not all are lost. “We want them home safe and we’ll do what it takes to get them home safe,” said Meyer, who recently located a child

Since its inception, Project Lifesaver devices have assisted in more than 3,600 rescues across the United States.

One in 59 children are diagnosed with autism according to the CDC, and drowning remains the leading cause of death for children on the spectrum. Of those deaths, 90 percent happened because a kid bolted or wandered away.

Below is a list of local law enforcement agencies who utilize the device, and information on how to register.

(Note: All information is current at the time of publication. Please check with individual agencies for updated information.)

• Indian River County Sheriff’s Office – FREE for residents through the Alzheimer & Parkinson Association of Indian River County. Available to all county residents, regardless of city jurisdictions. ($50 deposit required, but returned if the device is returned.)

St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office – FREE for residents, accepting applications

Port St. Lucie Police Department – FREE for residents, accepting applications

Sewell’s Point Police Department – FREE for residents, accepting applications

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office * – Available to all county residents, regardless of city jurisdictions. The device costs $352 for the first year, and approximately $45 every year after that to cover the costs of replacement batteries and wrist bands. Contact Program Coordinator Linda Boucher for more information at (561) 723-0372 or may qualify for a free device through FAU CARD. (More info here.)

* Juno Beach Police Department and Palm Beach Gardens Police Department also have Project Lifesaver tracking devices.