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Tracking project for missing persons tested on autistic boy

JENNA-LEY HARRISON
Staff Writer

City and county officials along with local media got the opportunity to observe how the county’s new Lifesaver Project operates through a special demonstration Thursday at the Sheriff’s Office.
The project, which commenced this week, is aimed at better helping law enforcement agencies locate individuals with memory-related illnesses who wander from a residence.
Austin Rodriguez, 9, is the first client to use the technology. Born with autism, Austin has wandered away from his Buffalo Shoals home.
“We don’t blink when he’s with us,” she said. “He would have a mission in his head, and we wouldn’t know what he was thinking.”
Since Austin’s been wearing his Project Lifesaver tracking bracelet for the last month, calling it his “police watch,” his parents have been more at ease and are even surprised at how quickly their son’s adjusted to his new safety accessory.
“He’s really adapted to it — more than I thought he would,” Kathie said. “Now we’re more at peace…We know if he wanders, we’ll have help.”
The Rodriguez family first heard about the project through Facebook and immediately contacted the Sheriff’s Office to see if something similar was in place in Lincoln County. Authorities told her about the project’s launch, and Austin was signed up to be the first candidate.
“With autism, there’re no two children alike,” Kathie said. “The spectrum’s so wide. It’s not one size fits all.”
Other potential candidates for the program include those with Alzheimer’s, Down Syndrome and various forms of dementia.
The Denver Lake Norman Rotary Club Foundation is set to sponsor a fundraiser for Project Lifesaver this month at Captain’s Cap Restaurant on N.C. 16 in Denver. The event, slated for 5:30-8:30 p.m., will be Jan. 24. Meals will be handed out to the public free-of-charge. Rotary officials hope to raise between $8,000 and $10,000 through the event, an amount that Sheriff’s Lt. Erin Long is anxious to see become a reality.
“That’ll get us really going in the right direction,” she said.
Through a grant, the Sheriff’s Office was able to purchase an initial set of Lifesaver equipment. Two more sets have been purchased for each of the county’s other two districts. Each set consists of two antennas, one to mount in a patrol vehicle and one for hand-held use, authorities said.
Once the Communications Center notifies authorities of a missing Project Lifesaver member, all trained sheriff’s officers are set to initiate a search for the individual.
Upon finding the signal of that person’s anklet or bracelet, authorities then hook together the two antennas “to get better direction,” Long said. A person can be tracked within a one-mile radius of the technology, which cuts hours off of authorities’ search time.
Long said previously it took officers an average of nine hours to locate a person missing from a memory-related illness. Now, she said it takes about 30 minutes, the same amount of time it took authorities to locate the “missing person” in Thursday’s demonstration.
“We can pin-point that much quicker,” Long said.
In addition to a radius barrier, the technology has trouble tracking a signal through buildings.
“Sometimes it bounces off … and you have to go around it (building),” Long noted.
Sheriff’s Office officials said they hope to increase the project’s technology in the future, even being able to track missing persons from an aircraft, an advantage that Catawba County authorities already offer.
Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid was vital in spreading word of the project to Lincoln County authorities and providing officer training, Carpenter said. Gaston County authorities also utilize the Lifesaver Project.
Currently, seven sheriff’s officers are trained in how to use the system with more officers slated to be trained in the near future.
Caretakers of individuals who sign-up for the project are only required to periodically check the bracelet or anklet’s battery life in addition to paying a $20 monthly fee to cover the cost of batteries and maintenance.
“Authorities will come out to the home and do everything else,” Long said.
Sheriff’s Office authorities plan to spread the word about the project by handing out pamphlets at the site of Lincoln County’s adult DSS and Senior Center.
For more information on a loved one’s eligibility for the program, contact Lt. Erin Long at (704) 736-8878.
For more information on the fundraiser dinner, contact either of the following individuals at their appropriate email address: Barbara Norman, bnorman@aquestainsurance.com; Anne Michael, pushpinned@aol.com; Bob Hecht, bob@hechtdevelopment.com; projectlifesaver@denverlakenormanrotary.com.
“I’m very, very happy — very pleased,” Kathie said of the project.

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