The same kind of technology used to track hunters lost in the woods could soon help find missing Alzheimer's sufferers and others with medical conditions that make them prone to wander.
Charleston County sheriff's deputies have been training this week on a tracking system that could be used for elderly patients with dementia, as well as children with autism or Down syndrome. The system uses a wrist or ankle bracelet that looks like the ones issued by hospitals. Each bracelet emits a radio frequency that can be picked up with tracking equipment from a mile away.
"In the long run, this could potentially be a money-saving, life-saving part of how we search for these people," Sheriff Al Cannon said Wednesday at a news conference at the former Naval Base.
The program, Project Lifesaver, boasts more than 1,600 successful searches nationwide since 1999.
The nonprofit organization has partnered with police in more than 30 states, including four agencies in South Carolina. The Richland County Sheriff's Office started using it two years ago.
Fran Emerson, Charleston-area program director for the Alzheimer's Association, said six out of 10 people with Alzheimer's will wander. There are 70,000 people with the condition in South Carolina and 5 million in the U.S. The national figure is expected to increase three-fold by 2050.
Sgt. Sherry Niblock, until recently the city of Charleston's missing persons detective, said the new technology could help, but it's still vulnerable to human error.
"The problem you're going to run into, as with anything, is that somebody has to activate it," Niblock said. People don't always do that, she said, especially if they feel guilty about not keeping an eye on the person.
The Sheriff's Office started Project Lifesaver with a $15,000 Justice Assistance Grant, which helped buy 10 bracelets, three transmitters and three antennae. Because of privacy concerns, the program would be restricted to people with medically diagnosed conditions. The sheriff said the program should not be a replacement for existing safety measures.
Each person who wants to participate would have to pay $500. Some estimates put the cost of an average police search at $1,500 per hour.
For more information, call Charleston County victims services at 745-2250. For the program's Web site, go to www.projectlifesaver.org.Six out of 10 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's will wander. There are 70,000 people with the condition in South Carolina and 5 million in the U.S. The national figure is expected to increase three-fold by 2050.