Tuning in to the vulnerable
PHF-sponsored radio technology arrives in the Keweenaw Area to safeguard those who are prone to wander, and easily lost
At a press conference Monday morning, representatives from four local sheriff’s departments announced the beginning of a partnership with Project Lifesaver, sponsored by the Portage Health Foundation and also in partnership with Superior Search & Rescue.
Project Lifesaver partners with municipalities and trains emergency responders on how to use their technology to locate missing individuals who are registered with the project. Registered people, often those with a cognitive disorder who are more likely to wander away from home or their caregiver, wear a small, non-removable radio transmitter with an individualized signal. When they’re reported lost, trained personnel can tune in and track the signal using triangulation.
“It’s older technology than GPS, but it’s better for our area,” Houghton County Detective Lieutenant Charlie Klein said.
Lt. Klein took the lead in the press conference, introducing the new program and answering reporters’ questions.
He spoke plainly about the reason the program was being pursued.
“Back in April this year, we all witnessed the tragedy that took place in Ontonagon,” Lt. Klein said, referring to the unfortunate death of 17-year-old Cam Besonen, who had autism and walked away from home.
“After watching the tragedy unfold, I saw a need in our community to protect our most vulnerable people with cognitive disabilities,” Klein said. “I know firsthand how challenging and stressful it can be for a family that has a loved one with a cognitive disability. My wife and I have a five-year-old with Down syndrome.”
He began looking for a way to prevent the loss of another vulnerable community member, and through his search found Project Lifesaver. Whereas the search for Cam Besonen went on for 72 hours, Lt. Klein said the average rescue time with Project Lifesaver is 30 minutes, and they boast a 100% recovery rate since their founding in 1999.
“After finding Project Lifesaver, I approached my undersheriff Kevin Capo and the late Brian McLean and asked for the green light to figure out a way how to implement this program in our communities,” Lt. Klein said.
They and the sheriffs from Keweenaw, Baraga, and Ontonagon Counties all agreed it was a program that should be brought to the area, but the cost to establish it here was an issue. They approached the Portage Health Foundation and submitted a grant application. PHF has granted $34,000 toward the startup costs for all four counties and the fees for the first 50 families that enroll.
Ontonagon Sheriff Dale Rantala didn’t mince words about the loss of Cam Besonen this year. His body was found less than a mile from home.
“That was the worst day of my career,” he said. “Telling the parents that we found him, but not alive.”
He thanked Lt. Klein for taking the initiative to find a way to keep it from happening again.
In addition to the loss of life, he also shared that the search operation lasted 72 hours, took 2,474 man-hours, and cost $185,557. Sheriff Rantala thinks that if Project Lifesaver had been used, the search would have been over in ten minutes.
“I would love it if we have this technology and we never need it,” Sheriff Rantala said. “But if we need it, it’s going to have a much better outcome than I had.”
Besides the initial grant for the technology and training for the officers to use it, Portage Health Foundation is covering the fees for the first 50 families to enroll, about $350 each. They’ve also launched an information, application, and fundraising webpage where the public can learn more and donate to support the program.
“The hope is that none of these families that participate in this will ever have to pay money to use it,” said PHF Marketing and Communications Director Michael Babcock.
Each sheriff’s department will have its own locator equipment, and Superior Search and Rescue has agreed to offer support with using it in the field, too. Batteries in the worn transmitters need replacing every two months, and law enforcement is planning to do the battery changes and replacing the single-use wristbands themselves.
Some of the specifics are still unknown to the participating departments, as the initial, 3-day training begins tomorrow. It includes not only how to use the technology itself, but also how to implement the program and what behavior to expect from someone with a cognitive disability who is lost.
Babcock noted that Besonen’s loss was not the only incident that has happened in the last year.
There will be a public information session about the program announced by the Portage Health Foundation within the next two months. The departments all hope to begin registering families and distributing wristbands in December.
UPDATE: The Houghton County Sheriff’s Office announced on Nov. 5 that enrollment for Project Lifesaver is now open. To start the enrollment process, you can email Sheriff Josh Saaranen at firstname.lastname@example.org, Detective Charlie Klein at email@example.com, or complete the online interest form on the Portage Health Foundation information website. Or you can call the Houghton County Sheriff’s office at (906)482-0055.