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Police using GPS, radio signals to track missing children

It's estimated that half of children with autism tend to bolt or wander. Detective Tom Yabe looked into tracking technology, devices commonly worn by Alzheimer's patients and other elderly people. (AP Photo/File)

Technology commonly used to protect the elderly who tend to wander away is now a tool for police to track down autistic children and other missing kids.

When a child with autism went missing in the town of Steilacoom, Washington, it took police an hour-and-a-half to find the boy. Thankfully, he was safe. But Detective Tom Yabe was not happy with the response.

“Time is absolutely of the essence,” he declared. Steilacoom has its share of hazardous areas, including Fort Lewis, the waterfront and active train tracks. He didn’t want to wait for a tragedy for his police department to do more for families with vulnerable children. “That to me was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back to say, ‘We’ve got to do something else.'”

It’s estimated that half of children with autism tend to bolt or wander. Yabe looked into tracking technology, devices commonly worn by Alzheimer’s patients and other elderly people.

A non-profit organization that support tracking technology, called Project Lifesaver is popular across the country.

Some systems use global positioning and others use radio transmissions to track missing people. GPS is precise but the devices are more expensive and require frequent recharging.

Yabe said he wondered if a wandering kid might use that opportunity to take off.

“Kids are smart and if he’s putting it together that the time for me to run is when I’m not wearing this bracelet or this ankle monitor, that’s what’s going to happen,” said Yabe.

While the radio transmitter gives just a general location of a missing person, they are good for as long as 30 continuous days, so they might be the best option for the autistic boy in Steilacoom, said Yabe.

“It’s not foolproof, but frankly it’s better than nothing, it’s better than the hour-and-a-half I spent just roaming the streets trying to find him,” Yabe emphasized.

Steilacoom Police Chief Ron Schuab said the promise of technology is to help police and other agencies work smarter and he sees great value for parents in the tracking program. “A lot of it’s giving them peace of mind.”

A U.S. Department of Justice program offers tracking devices through a grant and Steilacoom is writing a request to get the technology and hopes to have the program in place by winter. Snohomish County has a long-standing program called Project Care-Track and Yabe said other cities and counties in Washington are also making use of the tracking technology for vulnerable children and adults.

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