Rapid Return eases worries of relatives and caregivers of those who wander

County police is first state agency to use new technology

July 17, 2011|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

Corinne Young's son was diagnosed with autism when he was 18 months old. But even after his years of consistent therapy and in-home support, she fears he might one day wander away and not return.

"I think that's every parent's nightmare whose child is autistic," Young said. "They're vulnerable, they're very easy prey."

Her son, Garret Young, now 18, has wandered off before, once finding his way into the creek on a vacant 27-acre farm when the family lived in New Jersey. Recently, he wandered away and was found hiding behind patio furniture at a local department store when he was out shopping with his mother.

Though neighbors will call Young to tell her if Garret is walking down the street or has found his way into their kitchen, she now has another tool to reassure her — the Rapid Return program run by the Howard County Police Department.

The program, which was officially launched July 1, is a way to track missing people by outfitting them with watchlike monitors that can be traced using cellphone signals.

The Howard County Police Department is the first agency in the state to use the new technology, according to police spokeswoman Elizabeth Schroen.

Rapid Return is an offshoot of the department's Project Lifesaver, which started in 2007 as a way to track autistic children and elderly people suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. The difference between the two programs is the technology.

Project Lifesaver relied on radio frequency to locate those who might wander off, meaning the missing person would have to be within a one-mile radius of a portable antenna and within a five-mile radius if the antenna was attached to a police helicopter.

Because Rapid Return uses cellphone signals, the missing person can be located anywhere there is a nearby cell tower. As long as a dispatcher can contact a 911 operator in the area where the signal is being transmitted, local police can find the missing person.

"It's better technology," said Sgt. Bill Cheuvront, one of the first officers trained in Howard County's Project Lifesaver, who is now in charge of Rapid Return. "It's a little less burden on the family. They would have to come in every month to charge the battery" on the old devices, he said.

The program has yet to be tested: So far, none of the 24 people enrolled has gone missing.

"Knock on wood," Cheuvront said.

The Police Department is paying for the monitors as well as for the $25 monthly monitoring fees, though Cheuvront said that if more people enroll, the department will have to reassess.

The service now costs the department about $5,000 annually, Cheuvront said.

Though Candy Smith's 85-year-old mother, Olga, has not strayed far from the Columbia apartment they share, the federal government contractor still has concerns since the elder Smith was diagnosed in February with Alzheimer's.

"The worst thing she has ever done is gone upstairs to the neighbors," Smith said. "Better be safe than sorry."

Smith learned about the program at a senior center where her mother attends programs twice a week.

Initially, Olga Smith was given a plastic monitor, but Candy Smith said her mother found a way to cut it off. Olga Smith now has a monitor made of stainless steel.

Corinne Young said that her son doesn't understand why he is wearing the monitor, but seeing it gives her a feeling she didn't have before.

"I feel somebody is watching over him," she said.


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