Pierce County program aims to find missing, vulnerable people

You’ve seen the news reports all too often: someone with a developmental disability or a medical condition such as dementia or autism wanders away, and first responders and volunteers scour the area in a desperate search amid darkness, weather and other dangers.

Local agencies in Pierce County are teaming up to support a system that reduces the search for the community’s most vulnerable residents to a matter of minutes.

The system, known as EmFinders, utilizes a cellular device about the size of a wristwatch. If a loved one wanders off, caregivers first notify 9-1-1 and then call EmFinders, which activates the device. That activation prompts the device to call 911, enabling emergency dispatchers to quickly locate and return the missing person. The E911 cellular triangulation technology, unlike GPS, can locate inside buildings, under canopies, and in wooded areas.

“We are called upon to search for dozens of people throughout the year. Some of them cannot aid in their own rescue,” said Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor. “In this climate, every second counts. This technology helps first responders save lives by quickly locating some of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

PAVE, a statewide nonprofit organization that supports families with loved ones who have disabilities, has a limited number of scholarships available to defray the initial cost of the wireless locator bracelet. Participating families will have to pay the monthly service charge, which rides AT&T’s cellular network. PAVE received a $5,000 grant from Pierce County Community Connections, which manages safety net programs for county government, to help get the program started.

“Imagine the parent who looks away for just a minute and the child with special needs has disappeared. There is an immediate sense of fear that can happen with this scenario. We hear concerns from families who have loved ones who are prone to wander, and we understand their dread,” said Tracy Kahlo, PAVE’s Executive Director. “We are proud to work with Pierce County and other partners to provide access to a system that adds a layer of security and peace of mind.”

More information is available online at http://www.projectlocate.org or by calling PAVE (“Partnerships for Action, Voices for Empowerment”) at 800-572-7368 or (253) 565-2266.

A live demonstration on Jan. 12 included the Sheriff’s Department’s presentation of a Certificate of Achievement to Paula McCullough, a parent advocate and PAVE volunteer from Bonney Lake who has championed the need for a tool in Pierce County to locate loved ones prone to wandering.

The EmFinders system has resulted in 94 successful rescues in 19 states during the past year.