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Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Tracking device touted in missing-person cases
By Jennifer Sullivan
Snohomish County Search and Rescue members are at a loss to explain why more families are not signing up for a program that helps locate lost people suffering from Alzheimer's disease, autism, Down syndrome and other disorienting illnesses.
Randy Fay, who is in charge of the agency's 2-year-old Project Lifesaver program, points to the cases of Robert Reed, 75, and Willie Schoellhorn, 78, two Alzheimer's patients who died after becoming lost and disoriented near their homes.
Fay said Search and Rescue volunteers and others looked for the two men but didn't find them in time.
Fay and others are convinced that, had the two men been outfitted with Project Lifesaver's bracelets, which are equipped with transmitters, both would have been found shortly after they disappeared.
It was Reed's death in spring 2001 that spurred Search and Rescue to offer Project Lifesaver, a national nonprofit program based in Virginia.
The program provides plastic bracelets containing radio transmitters for adults and children who suffer from illnesses that make them prone to wandering off. The bracelets emit signals detectable within a mile on the ground and 9 miles in the air.
Thus far, 38 Snohomish County residents have been outfitted with the bracelets.
"It's frustrating. We know we have a tool which can help people afflicted with this," said Snohomish County sheriff's Sgt. Danny Wickstrom, who handles the sheriff's role in Search and Rescue. "You shouldn't have to die cold and scared back there in the brush."
Wickstrom said he has outfitted his 98-year-old grandmother, who has Alzheimer's disease, with a bracelet.
Because law-enforcement agencies near the woman's Sequim home don't offer the program, Wickstrom said that if his grandmother were missing, Snohomish County Search and Rescue members could take a tracking device to Sequim so local police could find her.
Jim Davis, a Sheriff's Office volunteer, outfits people with bracelets then visits them monthly to change batteries in the bracelets.
More than 75 people have gotten information on the program, but about half of them haven't enrolled their loved ones in the program.
"It goes back to denial," Davis said. "They don't want to admit that [their relatives] are that bad and they can't take care of them."
Search and Rescue charges county residents a one-time $200 fee to enroll in the program and a $15 monthly fee.
Wickstrom said Search and Rescue has worked out a payment schedule and scholarship program for people on fixed incomes.
Davis said the agency saw an increase in people who wanted information on the program after Schoellhorn's December death made news. Schoellhorn had walked away from his Arlington home planning to celebrate his birthday at a nearby American Legion hall.
He was found dead three days later less than 2 miles from home.
Fay said sheriff's deputies and Search and Rescue volunteers have successfully tracked more than a dozen signed up for Project Lifesaver.
"We've returned every one of them home within 35 to 40 minutes," Fay said.
Gene Saunders, who is the chief executive officer of Project Lifesaver International in Chesapeake, Va., said 325 law-enforcement agencies in 37 states are enrolled in the program. Saunders said law enforcement has responded to 1,003 calls for missing persons wearing the bracelets.
"So far we've had 100 percent success, and we're averaging 30 minutes or less on search times," Saunders said last week.
"My personal feeling is that this is the way to go," Davis said. "For the life of me, I don't understand why every county in the United States doesn't have them."
Wickstrom said the local program came into being after the Tulalip Tribes donated about $50,000. He said local Rotary clubs, tribal members, private citizens and others continue to donate to it.
Each program enrollee gets a device to test the bracelet battery.
"Like any flashlight battery or any other battery, it could go dead at any time," Wickstrom said. "We suggest they test that battery every single day. If the battery isn't giving out a signal, they may as well not have the bracelet."
Jennifer Sullivan: 425-783-0604 or email@example.com
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