Owen Pierce has something every six-year-old boy wants – special powers.
While he’s not shooting webs from his wrist, Owen does have a gadget that allows him to be found should he ever decide to wander off.
“Owen was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old,” said his mother, Natalie.
“As a result, he’s been classified as a flight risk which means in a matter of seconds he could walk out the door without giving it a second thought. He’s not scared of what could happen and he has no concept of direction at all.”
The gripping fear is something Natalie and husband Kenny know all too well. Owen has wandered off from his North River home on a few occasions. Most times, he doesn’t make it far before he’s spotted. But in one instance, he wandered from his quiet subdivision toward a busy Highway 311.
To make matters worse, Owen was non-verbal at the time which meant he couldn’t tell anyone where he lived, what his name was or the names of his parents.
“When I finally found him, he was less than 50 feet from the 311,” said Natalie. “He actually had a car stopped right in front of him. It was terrifying.”
To try and put an end to Owen’s wandering, Kenny and Natalie added locks to every door and even have an alarm system that verbally tells them when a door is open in the house. It still wasn’t enough.
That’s when they recalled a conversation they had with Kenny’s cousin, who was a member of Colchester Ground Search and Rescue. He told them about Project Lifesaver – a program that can track people of all ages who have a tendency to wander off and potentially get lost.
After a call to the organization, they were put in touch with Doug McNutt with the local search and rescue group. McNutt is the co-ordinator of Project Lifesaver for Colchester County.
“For the client, it basically looks like a wrist watch,” said McNutt. “It’s held on with a snap band and it’s extremely difficult to remove. This piece of equipment has its own frequency which can be picked up by one of our three receivers. If someone was to wander off, we respond with the receivers which on the ground can find the frequency within a one-mile radius. In a vehicle, we have an additional aerial that can double the radius to two miles.”
Colchester Ground Search and Rescue has been involved with Project Lifesaver for the past four years. McNutt is a firm believer in the technology and says it has a 100 per cent success rate to date in North America.
For someone like Owen, it could be the difference between life and death.
“If Owen wanders off, his parents need to call 911 first then they contact us,” said McNutt.
“We don’t care where they think he might be. If they’ve lost contact with him after an initial quick search, they need to make the call. I would far sooner be on my way there and receive a call that says he’s been found safe. In these instances, time is of the essence. Autistic kids like Owen have no fear when they’re out so that can lead to trouble very quickly.”
In a typical missing persons case, ground search and rescue units aren’t notified until at least 24 hours. Through Project Lifesaver, McNutt says they’re mandated to respond.
Although they’ve yet to use the equipment in a real-life scenario, McNutt says they could be on the road in less than 20 minutes.
“I have one of the receivers at my house,” said McNutt. “As soon as a call comes in and we’ve identified who is missing, I’m already entering that frequency into the receiver. With the mobile aerial, all I need is a driver and I can be operating the equipment as we respond. The fact we can start the search as we head toward the area where the person was last seen is critical. In the meantime, I’ve already called another trained member and they’re coming from a different direction with another receiver.”
Once the signal has been detected, the receiver will ping. The stronger the signal is, the louder the ping. If the signal weakens, the ping will lower which lets searchers know they’re heading in the wrong direction.
The receiver is also equipped with a gauge that monitors the frequency. Like the ping, as the signal increases, the gauge shows a higher reading.
Natalie and Kenny had to register Owen for the program. In order to complete the registration, a doctor also has to be involved and confirm the individual is a risk to wander off. Once enrolled, arrangements are made with the family for ground search and rescue volunteers to setup the equipment and explain how it works.
A home visit is required every 30 days where the units are checked, cleaned and the battery is replaced.
“We leave a tester at the house which is used to check the battery,” said McNutt. “If something goes wrong, they simply contact us and we come out and check everything over. The typical life span of a battery is 45 to 60 days but we change it out every month just to be safe.”
Knowing Owen is equipped with the technology has done a lot for Kenny and Natalie.
“It’s the peace of mind,” said Kenny. “We know that if we can’t find him, a quick phone call can have people responding who have this equipment that is designed to find him a lot faster.”
The initial setup cost for Project Lifesaver is $325. After that, it costs $25 which covers all of the expenses and replacement batteries. The Colchester Ground Search and Rescue unit receives no financial benefit from those fees.
“This is strictly done on a volunteer basis,” said McNutt. “We’re not in it to make money. This is what we do. This is our life. If someone is lost our main objective is to return them home safely.”
While covering the cost isn’t easy for families like Kenny and Natalie, there is help.
“The cost can be very deterring,” said Natalie. “It’s a lot of money to put out especially when you have other kids. Thankfully, the Department of Community Services covered the cost but we did have to prove it was necessary in Owen’s case. Once we provided them with the proper documentation, we had no issues. I know a lot of people would be scared off by the cost but I encourage them strongly to check into it before they decide they just can’t afford it.”
At this point, only a handful of people are registered with Project Lifesaver in Colchester County. It’s something McNutt wants to see grow.
He points to the search for a young autistic boy in Cape Breton back in 2009 who wandered off and was found dead.
“That’s still fresh for me,” said McNutt. “That was a hard one for many of us. The technology is here. It’s readily available. Let’s just use it. It’s good for people of all ages, not just autistic children. Seniors with the onset of dementia is another perfect example.”
Natalie agrees. She says the key is to spread the word about the program, especially among various professionals who work with autistic children or dementia patients.
“Doctors, therapists and even the school system should be well versed in this program,” she said. “It’s also important parents, guardians and family members know it exists too.
It’s a program designed to help. We’ve been to therapy with Owen in the past and the therapist had no idea what Project Lifesaver was. That’s frustrating from a mother’s perspective because they’re working with so many kids who have been diagnosed as a flight risk. Imagine if they could pass that information along to parents who are terrified about the thought of their son or daughter sneaking out and getting lost. I know what this has done for our peace of mind. I find it hard to believe others wouldn’t have the same feeling.”
For those looking for an up close and personal look at how the equipment is used, Colchester Ground Search and Rescue will be hosting a demonstration event June 26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. McNutt encourages anyone who may be interested to stop by, have a look and ask as many questions as they would like.