Project Lifesaver can help locate missing persons
By Ryan Gueningsman
DELANO, MN Six-year-old Sam Schuler of Delano is a kindergarten student at Delano Elementary with a contagious smile and amount of enthusiasm most would envy.
Diagnosed with autism a little more than three years ago, Sam now wears a special bracelet 24 hours a day that can help authorities locate him should he wander away from his parents.
Sam is the first child in Wright County to be a part of Project Lifesaver, which is a rapid response partnership with law enforcement to quickly locate and return wandering adults and children to their families and caregivers.
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others, according to the Autism Society of America.
Sam’s parents, Darren and Jennifer Schuler of Delano, found out about Project Lifesaver from a friend in Rochester who has an autistic child.
“Then my wife Jen got real in tune when she went on the search with her mom, Kathy, for Keith Kennedy back last summer,” Darren Schuler said. Kennedy is a 25-year-old autistic man who was found alive seven days after he had disappeared from a camp near Grantsburg, WI.
“She walked away from that saying, ‘if Keith would have had something like that, a Project Lifesaver band, he would have been found in a matter of hours, not days,’” Darren said.
Wright County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Esteson said from a cost perspective, that the average search costs approximately $1,500 an hour in resources, and said the average search lasts about nine hours.
“If you cut that down to half an hour, the savings is huge,” Esteson said, adding that, as of right now, Project Lifesaver has a 100 percent success rate.
“We really thought this would be a neat thing to bring to the county,” Schuler said. “Not just for our son, but for all kids in the county.”
Jenny’s mother, Kathy, works at the Buffalo Hospital, and was sitting in a monthly morning meeting when the group she was with got on the topic of the Buffalo Hospital Foundation and some of the things it was doing. Kathy thought Project Lifesaver was something the foundation could take on, and executive director Karla Heeter jumped on board.
“Kathy talked about her grandson, Sam, and how he would benefit with something like this,” Schuler said. “They started the wheel spinning a little bit.”
From there, the foundation hosted its annual fishing tournament. Add funds from that with those raised in several phone telethons, enough funds were raised to bring Project Lifesaver to Wright County.
“They had an open house, and are now trying to get the word out again to parents who have children with special needs,” Schuler said, adding that Project Lifesaver is not only for children with autism, but with any kind of disability where the child could wander. He said adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia could also benefit from this.
Schuler explained the bracelet stays on 24 hours a day, is waterproof, and can go through things like caves and tunnels and still work. Schuler said a lot of times, children with autism are found not far from their home.
“That was one of the things about this Project Lifesaver,” Schuler said. “It’s radio-transmitted and the band has a battery.”
In a worst-case scenario, Schuler said that if you don’t find them alive, at least you still would have the closure of finding them.
“In Sam’s case, he’s becoming pretty verbal now, and the wandering away has really subsided,” but Schuler admits it’s hard to have that 100 percent complete trust Sam won’t wander off.
“For us, we just feel that it’s something we have a passion for, for other kids in the community that need it,” Schuler said.
Schuler is the principal of Delano Elementary School, and said that as a school principal, he sees children on a daily basis who would benefit from this technology.
If a Project Lifesaver client does disappear
For the Schulers, if Sam would wander away while wearing the Project Lifesaver bracelet, a 911 call would be made to the dispatch center.
Once that call is made, emergency personnel respond, coordinate with those who have had the training in tracking the bracelet, and begin the search. Schuler said there is one transmitter in Delano, and another in Monticello.
“They’d all come to this area, branch out, and start the search,” Schuler explained. “It’s usually by car in the beginning, and then, as they get closer and the honing device starts beeping, they can start going by foot and tracking that way.”
The signal from the bracelet can be picked up as far away as two miles on the ground, or up to 10 miles by air.
So far, four fire departments in Wright County have personnel trained, along with several sheriff’s deputies, and several members of the Buffalo Police Department, to be part of the team.
Sergeant Brian Johnson of the Wright County Sheriff’s Office said there will be a number of deputies trained in this, and said school resource officers will be some of the first trained.
“We won’t train our entire department, but we’ll have a select group that knows the ins and outs of it,” Johnson said.
Delano Fire Chief Bob Van Lith said he is planning on taking this to the Wright County Fire Chiefs Association.
“I’m looking at running it the same way we do the fire investigation group,” Van Lith said. “Have three to five, or maybe six members from each department.”
Van Lith said there was a two-day course on how to run the system and equipment that was received, along with a one-day “train the trainer,” which will allow that person to go out and train more staff in the county.
“I thought it’d be a good tool,” Van Lith said when he initially heard about the program. “Now, after going through the course, I think it’s an excellent tool.”
Johnson said 95 percent of children reported missing are found within the first 10 minutes.
“A lot of times parents call and can’t find their kid and they’re hanging out at the park down the road,” Johnson said. “Obviously, when we’re dealing with people with special needs, a system like this is just going to allow us to do a much quicker search . . . time is of the essence for us whenever we’re searching for any person. That time is just so critical, and this is going to give us an advantage with time because we’re going to be able to narrow down large areas.”
The average time for Project Lifesaver searches has been under 30 minutes. Johnson said in the event of a large search, it can take well over 30 minutes simply to coordinate efforts.
“With this, it’s much more focused,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely a good product. How many other things do you know that have a 100 percent success rate? There’s not a lot of things that are guaranteed, or 100 percent effective.”
Esteson was quick to note there are no guarantees, but with Project Lifesaver, said the odds of finding someone who wandered away greatly improve. With Alzheimer’s patients, the odds of surviving after 24 hours of being missing is only 50 percent, so time is of the essence, Esteson added.
More reports of missing people happen in the summer months, Johnson said, adding the sheriff’s office gets anywhere from 10 to 15 calls every week.
“Half, by the time you get there, they’re already found,” Johnson said. “It’s very rare we actually get a large, full-scaled search.
Van Lith said the Delano Fire Department has done a few searches over the years, primarily in the Rebecca Park Preserve and the Three Rivers Park System.
“We had a large one a couple years ago at Camp Friendship outside of Annandale, where a younger gentlemen with special needs was lost,” Johnson said. “It was a large, large search.”
Schuler said the big thing now is just getting the word out to families about Project Lifesaver. It was noted there is possible statewide legislation in the works regarding the program, and for now it can now be funded through private donations.
“State legislation would be the best way to go,” Schuler said. “That way, everybody would have it.”
For more information
Families can start signing up for this program by calling Wright County Human Services at (763) 682-7875 for an application.
The bracelet will cost $300 the first year, then $85 every year after that. Scholarship funds are available for those who need assistance.
It cost about $20,000 to bring Project Lifesaver to Wright County. Buffalo Hospital Foundation raised money throughout the past year. The Community Health Foundation of Wright County, Elim Care Corporation, Wright Hennepin Operation Roundup, and Buffalo Fire Department all donated to this initiative.
“This is really a true partnership,” Heeter said.
Project Lifesaver is currently only available in six counties in Minnesota and one city.