As way of background I am a Police Detective in the New Rochelle Police Department (NY) and President of the New Rochelle PBA. New Rochelle is a 10 square mile city located within Westchester County, NY. Westchester County offers Project Lifesaver to all qualified residents within the County. I live in New Rochelle with my Wife Tracy and two children Christopher, 9 and Gabriella 4.
If you asked me what autism was 20 years ago when I was a rookie police officer, I probably would not have had an intelligent answer. If you asked me 20 years ago if I would be in charge of my agencies Project Lifesaver program I likely would have passed so that I could continue being a “street cop.” Fast forward 20 years and here I am, the parent of a 9 year old boy with autism and a local detective that facilitated the development of the New Rochelle Police Department’s Project Lifesaver program.
Although I am far from an expert on autism, I am certainly an expert when it comes to my son Christopher and his safety. Christopher was diagnosed with autism at 11 months and has since been in early intervention and other special services to help him. He remains nonverbal and significantly developmentally delayed. Christopher is at high risk for “wandering” and has very little situational awareness. Jumping in a pool on a hot summer day is as fun for Christopher as it is for any other kid, except my son doesn’t know he can’t swim! Christopher can never be unsupervised; whether in the back yard, on the beach, at school or in the supermarket, and he requires one-on-one attention 24 hours a day. Although my wife Tracy and I do our best to ensure his safety, we are not free of having one or two mishaps over the last 9 years.
One such mishap occurred while vacationing in a beach front home at the Jersey Shore. While doing something as simple as talking to a neighbor, Christopher was able to wander away from me. When I went back inside the house my wife calmly asked, “Where is Christopher?” As fast as I could I started to give orders. “Check the front of the house,” I yelled to my wife. “Check the bedrooms,” I yelled to my friends. My request to check the front of the house and the bedroom was just a ploy because I already knew where Christopher was since I was the idiot that left him there – 20 feet from the beach and about 100 feet from the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. I frantically ran back to the beach and toward the crashing waves, scanning the beach and shoreline with every step I took. Thankfully within seconds Christopher was found walking happily along the beach but with no awareness of how much danger was lurking just steps ahead of him. An angel was certainly watching over him because like so many children with autism, Christopher loves to be in the water.
It was at that moment that I started to think about how wandering could be prevented and committed myself to buying the best available equipment to safeguard Christopher and other similar children and adults in my home town of New Rochelle.
I began searching the internet and various sources to locate an effective perimeter alarm and locate system – one that could create an invisible fence around Christopher; one that would sound an alarm the second the perimeter is violated and one that would allow me to immediately start searching for Christopher if the alarm is missed (of course after calling the police). Most of the products I discovered were GPS systems which require a monthly subscription and cell service. GPS can be a very effective tool for parents and law enforcement, but it also has a significant disadvantage to my proposed alarm system. The biggest disadvantage is simple – if a caregiver needs GPS then the loved one is already GONE! Why not prevent the loved one from disappearing in the first place! That was my goal!
After hours of research I contacted Chief Gene Saunders who is the CEO and Founder of Project Lifesaver International. Project Lifesaver is a program designed to help individuals affected with autism and other developmental disabilities that may wander or get lost. Project Lifesaver uses state-of-the-art technology, employing wristband transmitters to locate wandering and lost children and adults. Project Lifesaver can be found in 48 states and in over 1,400 police agencies nationwide. Individuals who are part of the Project Lifesaver program wear a personalized bracelet that emits a tracking signal. The bracelet serves as a transmitter that produces an automatic tracking signal every second, 24 hours a day. The signal can be tracked on the ground or in the air over several miles. After caregivers call 911, trained police officers are dispatched to the area to begin the search for the missing person using a mobile locator tracking system. Most searches last no longer than 30 minutes. Although Project Lifesaver sounded like a great program it still did not offer what I was truly seeking, a perimeter alarm system and personal locator for my son.
During my conversation with the Chief, I explained to him exactly what I was looking for and asked him why Project Lifesaver didn’t have a perimeter alarm system and personal locator for caregivers. The Chief’s response instantly changed my life as a parent and as PBA President. Chief Saunders disclosed to me that Project Lifesaver was soon releasing two new products that would help achieve my goals and help thousands of families that may require a personal locator system and perimeter alarm system. These products include the PLI-1000 Personal Locator System and a Perimeter Alarm Protector System. The PLI-1000 Locator System is the newest radio frequency based tracking system that is available to member agencies and to caregivers of loved ones who are prone to wandering. The PLI-1000 was released in the summer of 2015 and the Perimeter Alarm Protector System is expected to be released in November 2015. The PLI-1000 is a portable tracking receiver that tracks the same frequency used by the police department (if enrolled) or can be used by families that live in towns or counties which do not offer Project Lifesaver at their local police department. In the event that a loved one goes missing the caregiver equipped with the PLI-1000 can start the search immediately and notify their local police of the wandering event. The Perimeter Alarm Protector System will be intended to sound an alarm if the invisible fence is broken and should immediately notify the caregiver to locate the loved one before they go missing and return them to safety.
The information and equipment described by Chief Saunders was the perfect opportunity to better protect my son and to bring a great community-based policing program to New Rochelle.
Within weeks my son was registered in Project Lifesaver and I was able to purchase my own PLI-1000. Additionally, the New Rochelle PBA was able to raise over $15,000 to buy and donate to the New Rochelle Police Department its own Project Lifesaver search and rescue program. New Rochelle has since become the first police agency within Westchester County, NY to purchase and maintain its own equipment. By becoming a member agency in Project Lifesaver, the New Rochelle Police Department will be able to deploy specially trained police officers to begin searching immediately for an enrolled client who was wandered. The New Rochelle Police Department will also be able to provide search support to the Westchester County Police in other nearby jurisdictions that may have a wandering event.
Additionally with the money raised the New Rochelle PBA hopes to purchase and donate to qualified families PLI-1000 Personal Locator tracking receivers and Perimeter Alarm Protector Systems.
As the parent of a child with autism and as a law enforcement official I am compelled to stress upon any parent or police agency the need for this equipment. If your county or local police does not have Project Lifesaver or a similar program please take the lead to get it. If you are a caregiver of a person at risk for wandering not only should your loved one be enrolled in Project Lifesaver but you should also consider the purchase of the PLI-1000 and the Perimeter Alarm Protector System (when released).
All too often wandering events for individuals not enrolled in Project Lifesaver end in an unnecessary and possibly a preventable tragedy. The time to search and locate individuals not enrolled in Project Lifesaver can exceed 8 hours and cost tens of thousands of dollars in resources. Historically, Project Lifesaver clients are located within just 30 minutes and more importantly, they are most often found alive.
Wandering events could be avoided if the proper technology and training was made available not only to police but for the caregivers. From a law enforcement prospective this technology is a no brainer! If it saves one life it will be money well spent.
Although my article may seem like a free advertisement for Project Lifesaver I assure every reader that this article was unsolicited and comes from my heart! The experience I suffered when my son wandered onto the beach is one I would never want to experience again and one that no parent should experience. Project Lifesaver, in my personal and professional opinion, offers the best home defense to prevent wandering and offers a great personal locate system for caregivers. Furthermore Project Lifesaver offers the best and most widely used technology for police departments.
A special thank you is extended to my wife Tracy Greco for being Christopher’s number one protector. A special thank you is extended to the Westchester County Police for training New Rochelle Police Officers. A special thank you is extended to the 11 New Rochelle Police Officers who volunteered to be trained. And lastly Thank You to all of our supporters who donated over $15,000 and helped bring the program to the New Rochelle Police Department.
For any questions about our program or Project Lifesaver please contact Detective Christopher Greco at firstname.lastname@example.org.