Radio transmitters help police find people in need

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — When 10-year-old Trey Michalski runs, he’s gone in a flash.

He has autism. Running is simply a part of who he is.

The Sioux City Journal reports (http://bit.ly/148V8h6 ) that last week, 25 Sioux City police officers and Woodbury County sheriff’s deputies learned techniques to find people like Trey if he goes missing. He’s one of 32 Woodbury County residents equipped with bracelets and anklets from Project Lifesaver. The Florida nonprofit provides the devices, which have a radio transmitter that emergency crews can use to locate a person.

Most are children with autism or people with dementia.

Searchers use a six-pronged metal antenna to zero in on the radio signal. A handheld unit — which looks like a 1980s video game — emits a distinctive “chirp” noise when the antenna is pointed toward the transmitter.

In previous cases, searchers have used a Mercy Air Care helicopter to get better reception and a different vantage point. Police also can place Project Lifesaver antennas on squad cars.

The goal is to find people quickly and safely, reducing risk of injury to the participants and avoiding costly searches, said Rita Donnelly, who oversees the program for the Sioux City Police Department.

It started locally with $10,000 from the Missouri River Historical Development in 2007. It is coordinated locally by Donnelly and funded mainly through user fees and donations.

Project Lifesaver is a safety net for Trey, said his mother, Shana Michalski. Because of his autism, Trey, of Sioux City, doesn’t understand danger. He also can’t talk.

“We can’t protect them all the time,” Shana Michalski said. “And he doesn’t have the skills to where he knows it’s not OK to (run away).”

In July 2011, officials used Project Lifesaver to find an 11-year-old Spencer, Iowa, girl in the Little Sioux River. She was found six miles from where police believe she went in the water.

The girl wandered away from her home early in the morning. Without Project Lifesaver, finding her would have been even more difficult, said Clay County Sheriff Randy Krukow.

“I won’t say we would have never found her in time, but it cut down the search,” he said.

In the last six months, Woodbury County searchers were called to find an elderly woman and several children. Donnelly said officials don’t keep statistics for the number of Project Lifesaver deployments, which aren’t differentiated in police records from other missing persons calls.

The first program in Iowa started in Spencer and now is in Buena Vista, Clay, Dickinson, Emmet, Lyon, O’Brien, Osceola, Palo Alto, Plymouth, Scott, Sioux and Woodbury counties.

Most people in Sioux City are found within 30-40 minutes.

“In the long run, it will save our agency money if we can find an individual in an hour instead of days,” Donnelly said.

Participants in Woodbury County pay $300 for the transmitter. Battery changes cost about $15 per month. Waivers are available for those who can’t pay.

The equipment is from Project Lifesaver International, based in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Though founded for dementia patients in 1999, Project Lifesaver is now increasingly used by children with autism or intellectual disabilities such as Down Syndrome.

In Woodbury County, 27 of the 32 participants are children. Three are young adults and two are older than 55. All but one of 24 Project Lifesaver participants in the other 10 Northwest Iowa counties are children.

It’s a trend officials at Project Lifesaver International are seeing as well. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Kappas believes it’s a sign of the increasing number of children diagnosed with autism.

Autism affects about one in 88 U.S. children. Those who have it may have problems communicating and maintaining eye contact. They also may have outbursts or unusual repetitive behavior.

Like Trey, many children with autism have a tendency to bolt, or wander. More than 60 children have died this way in the past four year.

For many parents, Project Lifesaver is an act of desperation after years of worry and constant vigilance, said Donnelly, of the police department.

For Shana Michalski, it’s a relief.

“I’m grateful,” she said. “Just knowing that if something were to happen to my son there’s people out there who are willing to be trained and willing to go look for these kids, it’s great”

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Information from: Sioux City Journal, http://www.siouxcityjournal.com

This AP Member Exchange was shared by the Sioux City Journal.

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