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'Lifesaver' program could make finding missing persons easier for St. Joseph County police

South Bend Tribune - 10/17/2020

Oct. 16--SOUTH BEND -- Three years ago, Nicole Willard watched as first responders pulled her 5-year-old son, Xavier, out of the St. Joseph River near Howard Park.

The boy, who was not seriously injured in the incident, has autism and ADHD and when he ran off after a music therapy class, his mom couldn't chase very far as she had to carry her youngest son.

Now if Xavier were to run off, Willard said, she will have a greater sense of security, thanks to Project Lifesaver, a recent initiative from the St. Joseph County Police Department that aims to make locating people with cognitive disorders easier to find when they wander off.

"It gives us that peace of mind knowing if he were to try to run off that we would have that immediate contact with Sheriff [Bill] Redman and Project Lifesaver," Willard said. "It basically gives us our life back. We haven't been able to do anything outside for two years with Xavier without holding his hand."

As a part of the revived program -- the department ran a similar initiative around a decade ago -- residents can request to have a loved one with a cognitive disorder fitted with a tracker bracelet that transmits a radio signal. If the person runs away or wanders off, county police will be able to track the person's bracelet via a radio frequency and hopefully locate them in under 45 minutes.

Willard's experience and conversations with the department provided the impetus for reinstating the program, according to Redman and Sgt. Daniel Banicki, who will run the Project Lifesaver program.

"We want to give somebody that peace of mind that they can say, 'Hey if they do come up missing, I do have some place I can call and they're going to come out and find them as fast as humanly possible,'" Banicki said.

Banicki said the department currently has 20 bracelets available and added that participants must have a cognitive disorder, such as Alzheimer's, dementia or autism, and live with somebody else to be eligible.

The program is free for enrolled residents and will cost the department approximately $7,000 for the equipment and maintenance. Redman said the Project Lifesaver technology could save the department money since searches for missing persons with cognitive disorders often require a lot of resources.

"Currently the way it's set up, if we have a person who wanders off we are utilizing a lot of resources, a lot of officers are called in," said Redman. "In this situation here, we'd be able to keep that to a minimum knowing we have the ability to track these individuals faster."

Redman estimated there have been a handful of searches for people who have wandered off in the past year.

In a demonstration at the St. Joseph County Jail on Friday, Banicki and officer Anthony VanOverberghe attempted to find a bracelet hidden in the jail parking lot.

Guided by beeps from the receiver as the radio waves bounced off the bracelet, the officers found the bracelet, which was a little over a hundred yards away, after five minutes of searching.

Banicki said the receiver has a range of a quarter mile, which can be extended with specialized antennas if needed. The tracker bracelets are waterproof and need to have their batteries changed every two months, he said.

Willard hopes the program gives other families with special-needs children more freedom as they have another resource to help find wayward kids.

"Just knowing that we're part of a community and other people care about our son and other children and adults with special needs is indescribable to me," Willard said.

mmazurek@sbtinfo.com

574-235-6234

@marek_mazurek

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