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Locator equipment could save lives

Helen and Wilbur Falkenthal still shudder at what could have happened on a hot August day last year when their 5-year-old autistic granddaughter wandered away from home.

The little girl rode her bicycle three blocks to a New Richmond park, where searchers found her bike with the helmet hanging on the handle bar. Then she followed a railroad track, walked over a bridge with water on both sides and trudged along a busy highway, covering at least a mile to her grandparents' home where she arrived, hot and thirsty but otherwise well.

That same summer the Wisconsin and Minnesota news media followed the stories of two autistic children who weren't so lucky. A 7-year-old boy from Saratoga and a 5-year-old girl from Blaine, Minn., both drowned after wandering away from their homes.

"(Our granddaughter) could have been No. 3," said Wilbur.

"It was horrible," said his wife of their ordeal.

Mary Paulson, River Falls, was also among those anxiously following the searches for the Wood County boy and the Blaine girl. Paulson's autistic son was about the same age as the lost children. Although he had never gotten far, he too has wandered away from home.

"That hit hard for a lot of us," said Paulson of area parents' responses to the tragedies. She said autistic people are attracted to water, find it calming and are not as likely as others to avoid deep water. If they are able to call for help, autistic people may not but may instead hide in a secluded place.

"Children with autism are known for not having a sense of danger," said Paulson.

Also, as in the case of the Falkenthals' granddaughter, they will avoid contact with people -- even those searching for them.

During one of the newscasts, Paulson heard an interview of Bob Parrott, a Minnesota volunteer in public safety, who is a certified Project Lifesaver trainer.

Lifesaver International is used in nine Wisconsin and five Minnesota counties to help find people with conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia, autism and Down syndrome.

After learning about the program, Paulson helped organize an Aug. 8 presentation in River Falls during which Parrott spoke to families, county and local law enforcement personnel, Human Services workers and emergency response personnel.

The goal for that meeting was to present the project and gauge support.

"The consensus in the room was yes," said Paulson.

While Pierce County Sheriff Nancy Hove and St. Croix County Sheriff Dennis Hillstead said their departments don't have the money to pay for the equipment and training, both said they would implement the program if the volunteers could raise the money.

Her county has had kids wander off from time to time and so far has been lucky enough to find them, but the Lifesaver technology would be a good thing to have, said Hove.

"I think we've got some kids in our county that could use it and some adults it would be helpful for," said Hove. "It would put some people's minds at rest."

It's a worthwhile project, agreed Hillstead. He said both counties have adults in the mid-stages of Alzheimer's and children with autism and Down syndrome who could use the program.

But, said Hillstead, "With budgets the way they are, there's not enough money to ask the County Board for funding."

Since August a group of about 12 volunteers have been organizing and soliciting with the goal of raising the $20,000 that would be needed to bring Lifesaver to Pierce and St. Croix counties.

"Project Lifesaver isn't just a batch of equipment. It's a program," said Paulson. Once the equipment is purchased, law enforcement officers are trained to use it and in techniques for approaching disabled persons and interpreting their behavior.

"The monies are coming slow," admitted Helen Falkenthal. "The timing right now is tough."

Volunteers have been soliciting money from family, friends, business people and civic organizations. So far they've raised only a few hundred dollars, but they do have a couple of $1,000 pledges from businesses.

Plans are in progress for two presentations to businesspeople and civic group leaders. The meetings will be held in April in both Ellsworth and Hudson. Details on those presentations aren't finalized.

During the meeting last August, several parents talked about close calls they'd had with their children wandering off, said Paulson. She said the need for constant vigilance can be exhausting.

"We put in a security system in our home, but nothing is 100 percent," she added, saying that children can wander off quickly and quietly.

The Falkenthals care for their two autistic grandchildren every weekend while the kids' mother, a nurse, works.

"They are so vulnerable," said Helen. She said her grandchildren, who have multiple health problems, have special diets and sleep disturbances.

"You can't have a babysitter," she said.

Autistic children tend to be nocturnal, said Paulson. Also, she said, they're not likely to ask for help if they're lost and probably won't respond if called.

She said the effectiveness of search parties is limited.

"You can be calling them by name, but they're not going to answer," said Paulson.

Project Lifesaver participants wear a light wrist band that transmits on an individual FM frequency. Lifesaver searchers say they find most wanderers within 30 minutes and in one case the person was found within five minutes, said Helen.

"It can give families and caregivers a little bit of peace of mind when you live in a world where there's very little peace of mind," said Wilbur.

Those wanting more information or wishing to donate to the project may call Paulson at 715-425-8208 or e-mail her at or call the Falkenthals at 715-246-4509.

Checks may be made out to "Project Lifesaver" with "Pierce-St. Croix WI" written on the memo line.

Lifesaver wristband

Hand-held antennas are used to pick up transmissions from wristbands.

Who would use it

Project Lifesaver is intended to help locate people who may wander and become lost due to conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia, autism or Down syndrome.

According to 2000 Census data, more than 940 St. Croix County adults and 520 Pierce County residents over 65 have some form of dementia.

In the two counties, more than 50 children are receiving services for autism and more than 45 have Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities.

How it works

The Pierce and St. Croix sheriff's departments would join nine other Wisconsin counties in offering Project Lifesaver as a service to residents.

Donations are being solicited to buy start-up equipment packages that would stay with the sheriffs' departments and to provide training for law enforcement and public safety personnel. The fund-raising goal is $20,000 for equipment and training for both counties.

The equipment includes professional quality VHF receivers, directional hand-held Yagi antennas and cables, magnetic mount vehicle antennas and cables, professional quality headsets, VHF transmitters and CD-Rom disks for downloading search information.

Though there will be some financial assistance available, families would have to buy the $300 personalized wristband worn by participants.

The wristband, based on technology for tracking bears, would emit a tracking signal on an individually assigned FM radio frequency. The band holds a one-ounce transmitter with a 30-day battery that emits a tracking signal every 30 seconds, 24-hours a day.

Caregivers agree to check their home and yard and then immediately notify the local Lifesaver agency if a child or adult wanders off. Trained search teams respond and begin the search.

According to Project Lifesaver officials, the program had rescued more than 1,400 people since 1999. The average time it took to locate the missing person in those 1,400 cases was 30 minutes.

The Web site for Project Lifesaver is