Heather Walker’s 11-year-old son, like many children with autism, tends to wander.
The Schenectady woman now takes comfort in knowing if her son ever does get lost, he’ll be wearing a bracelet that sends out a signal that can be located by Schenectady County sheriff’s deputies. He started wearing the band on his shoe three weeks ago.
“My son hasn’t wandered at this point, but he has wandered in the past,” she said.
Walker’s son is one of two residents to have received a transmitter bracelet as part of the county’s recent participation in the national Project Lifesaver program. The other recipient is a Niskayuna woman with Alzheimer’s disease.
The county used about $3,800 in asset forfeiture funds to purchase 10 kits, which include a year’s supply of bracelets, along with batteries and a tester. A federal grant worth about $4,000 was used to purchase two receivers and to train three deputies in order to start the program locally.
The county pursued the program at the urging of Walker, advocacy director for the Autism Action Network of Schenectady County, and Cindy Barkowski, a member of the group who has a 20-year-old son with autism.
The program is meant to assist local agencies find people with autism, Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome and traumatic brain injuries who wander. It will also save time and money, said Deputy David Leffingwell, community resource officer. A K-9 search would no longer be necessary if the person who gets lost is wearing a wristband, he said.
“It’s going to help us or the caregiver or the family members find them a lot quicker and get them out of harm’s way,” he said.
Leffingwell, one of three deputies trained in using the equipment, said each transmitter bracelet has a unique frequency, which goes out every second. When someone wearing the bracelet is lost, the caregiver calls 911 and the Sheriff’s Department, so a deputy with the proper training can be dispatched. Deputies start their search by turning 360 degrees until the handheld receiver starts to beep.
“Once we get that beep, then we know which direction they’re in,” he said. “We walk in that direction, and it gets louder.”
Warren, Albany and Columbia counties have all started using the same system, he said, which means if someone wanders there from Schenectady County, they can be located. Nationally, more than 1,300 agencies in 47 states participate in Project Lifesaver.
“Minutes can be the difference between saving someone’s life, so it’s important that we embrace the technology that allows us to be able to find people efficiently and return them to their families as soon as possible,” said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who helped the Sheriff’s Department announce the program Tuesday morning.
Santabarbara’s 12-year-old son has autism.
“When he was younger, we’d have to keep a close eye on him,” he said. “He would run off sometimes, and not being able to speak or communicate, we often worried about that. And a lot of parents worry about that exact same thing.”
Walker said that, according to the National Autism Association, 49 percent of children with autism attempt to escape from a safe environment, which is four times higher than siblings without disabilities.
Leffingwell said he expects the eight remaining transmitter kits to go fast, and future kits will be funded by donations. Walker and Barkowski hope to raise $3,500 for the Sheriff's Office through various efforts, starting with a Battle of the Bartenders event today from 5 to 7 p.m. at Johnny’s in Schenectady. Half of the proceeds will go to the Schenectady Kiwanis Club, which is hosting the event, and the other half will go toward purchasing future transmitter kits for parents and caregivers.
The event will see Santabarbara and Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy face off as bartenders, with tips donated to the causes.
Santabarbara is also advocating for a bill, called Avonte’s Law, that would provide funding to local law enforcement agencies to purchase devices used to locate children with disabilities.
The bill, now in committee in the Assembly, is named after Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old New York City boy with autism who wandered out of his school last year and was later found dead in a nearby river. To learn more about Project Lifesaver, call the Sheriff’s Department at 388-4596, ext. 5147, or 388-4512.