Police in Allegheny County get tracking tool for missing persons

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The young boy couldn‘‍t have wandered far.

Police knew he was 5 years old, had autism and recently developed a liking to tucking himself away in dark spaces. What they didn’‍t know was that he was closer than they thought, out of eyesight at the bottom of a steep and gated outdoor stairwell.

The officers walked at a stagnant pace as the radar-gun-resembling equipment chirped steadily in their hands, zeroing in on the staircase. At the bottom of the stone steps, though, there was no boy. This was a drill, after all, an invented scenario to train police officers who gathered Thursday at the Waterfront office of the Allegheny County district attorney.

Peering over the gate to the staircase, police saw the small, white positioning device that had lead them there. These officers from various police departments across the county were part of a county task force being trained to use handheld receivers that track a transmitter bracelet worn by special needs individuals -- individuals, young and old, who typically have varying conditions including autism and Alzheimer's.

Munhall police were the first in the state to get the devices that were provided by Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization spearheading an effort to prevent individuals with such disabilities from wandering away or becoming lost. They expect to begin the servicein about a month.

Munhall police officer James Williams is leading the charge in trying to equip surrounding municipalities with proper training needed to become certified with the equipment and special search tactics.

Eligible recipients who are able to participate in the program usually have some sort of condition that would make them prone to wandering, Officer Williams said. In order to meet eligibility requirements, the individual must also be under constant supervision by a guardian or caregiver.

Those who use the Project Lifesaver service fasten a thin white band, equipped with a rectangular tracking device, to their wrist or ankle. Each device has its own sub-frequency number and has a battery life of about 60 days. The handheld devices carried by police officers can detect the signal emitted by the tracking device from as far away as 1 1/2 miles.

Officer Williams received a federal grant which helped him lay the groundwork for the service in Munhall and take it elsewhere in the county. Nine other municipalities, including Pittsburgh, have agreed to sign on and train officers to become certified by the organization. 

The devices can cost as much as $300. Munhall’ is paying its way in the project with money seized from drug trafficking operations, Allegheny Deputy District Attorney Tom Swan said. 

When Officer Williams began thinking of bringing Project Lifesaver to Munhall last year, it was personal. His  4-year-old son Tyler has autism, he said. Tyler does not wear one of these devices.

Nationally, 48 states participate in the program in addition to other countries such as Canada and Australia. In Munhall, about 30 people have applied to take part in the service once it begins, Officer Williams said.

Police departments from Aspinwall, Bethel Park, McKeesport, Millvale, Moon, Monroeville, Northern Regional, Pittsburgh and Elizabeth also have joined the task force.

Michael Majchrowicz: mmajchrowicz@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz




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