The Three Rivers Park District is trying out a new technology this summer that could help protect some of its most vulnerable visitors.
The district has recently begun leasing four Protect and Locate devices, which are transmitters designed to be worn by people who are at high risk to wander away, such as children with autism and adults with Alzheimer’s disease.
The device, produced by the Florida-based Project Lifesaver, looks like a watch and sounds an alarm if the person wearing it walks too far away from a base unit kept by a caregiver.
Perhaps more even more crucial is the device’s GPS unit, which allows the person holding the base unit to pinpoint the location of the person wearing a transmitter.
“This technology is a great public safety tool,” said Three Rivers Police Chief Hugo McPhee. “It is ideal for guests with Alzheimer’s, dementia or autism — anyone who has the potential for wandering. With this tool, a vulnerable individual will be able to go camping and enjoy an outing with family, but at the same time the family can have peace of mind that their loved one won’t wander off.”
Last year, the district’s law enforcement officers responded to about 57 reports of missing persons. Typically, the person who went missing was a young child, McPhee said. Each case was resolved swiftly and with a good outcome.
That’s not always the case.
Over the past year, there have been several high-profile cases across the country of young children with autism wandering away from caregivers. Tragically, some don’t return.
Eleven-year-old Anthony Kuznia drowned in the Red River last summer after wandering away from his home in East Grand Forks.
Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, called the device being used by the park district a “wonderful tool” for families who have loved ones with autism, many of whom have the tendency to wander away.
“Many of them don’t go to the park for fear that if they look away for three seconds, their child might be gone,” he said.
The district is allowing visitors to try the devices free of charge. They can be reserved on a first-come, first-served basis by calling the district’s public safety department.
Because the park only recently received the devices, they haven’t yet been widely used. Some of the park district’s staff members who have children with special needs have tested them out and provided rave reviews, McPhee said.
While the district has only a one-year lease for the devices, McPhee believes it will find a way to make them available to park visitors.
“In my mind, it’s an ethical and moral decision,” he said. “If there’s a way to help families have better access, that’s what we have to do. It’s the right thing to do.”