The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office has plenty of technology at its disposal, but when it comes to locating missing community members, especially those with cognitive disorders, simpler tech has proved to be better.
For around 15 years WCSO has been one of nearly a dozen law enforcement agencies in Tennessee and is one of hundreds across the nation that have partnered with Project Lifesaver, a Virginia-based non-profit that began in 1999, which uses radio transmitters and receivers to track vulnerable populations who have a history of wandering away from their families or caregivers.
“The equipment has upgraded significantly since then,” WCSO Corporal Joe Burns, one of the department’s two Project LifeSaver instructors said, adding that it’s not just the physical devices that have become more user-friendly. “The transmitters have transitioned from analog to digital now, it’s a cleaner, crisper signal now once you grab it and track it.”
The voluntary program has 11 clients in Williamson County, with most of those being children with special needs, and involves clients wearing a small plastic transmitter on a strap, similar to a wrist watch, so that in the event that they become missing or lost, law enforcement can quickly track them down and bring them home safely.
In order to find a missing person enrolled in the program, law enforcement uses a relatively simple hand-held, directional radio receiver that beeps at faster and louder intervals as it hones in on the transmitter’s signal, while the deputy uses it in a sweeping motion in a search area.
The program is free for clients, and is included in the county’s budget for an annual cost of around $1,800.
According to Project Lifesaver’s website, 3,837 rescues have been completed by law enforcement agencies around the country, with many of those incidents being resolved within minutes.
WCSO has seen four uses of the program in the last two years, all of them successfully completed within 15 minutes.
Six deputies are certified in using the equipment which includes WCSO helicopter pilots who often assist in search and rescue missions.
“Our average search is usually no more than an hour compared to before which could last anywhere from 12 to 24 hours,” WCSO Deputy Bryan Welch, the department’s other Project LifeSaver instructor, said.
Maintenance and training is also fairly simple, with the transmitters using readily available coin batteries that are replaced by deputies every 60 days, offering them the opportunity to connect with clients on a regular basis, especially clients who may be adverse to a stranger in uniform, and giving them an opportunity to connect with the person behind the badge.
“Being able to go spend five or ten minutes every couple of months with them, first they get to know you, so they become familiar with you, so it makes that process a lot easier, plus it gives them a good positive interaction with us, and if they do wander and we have to go find them, we’re not a complete stranger showing up to get them to go back home,” Burns said. “They tend to recognize us and know who we are and so we have a better chance to talk to them and get them to do what we need them to do.”
Burns and Welch said that the equipment more reliable and precise than GPS tracking, which uses satellites to give a location in an approximate area where the radio frequency offers a more precise location that can be narrowed down in a search area to find someone in a location such as inside of a specific room of a building or behind a specific tree or set of foliage in the outdoors.
In the beginning, WCSO saw more clients with Alzheimer's and dementia patients and has since transitioned to younger clients, especially for children with autism or down syndrome or someone who may have a traumatic brain injury, something Welch said is due in part to some of Williamson’s County’s aging population having access to secured retirement and memory-care communities.
“Personally, it’s a good feeling when you can find someone that’s vulnerable that’s gone missing before anything bad happens to them,” Burns said. “It feels good to return them to their family and see the joy and relief that they have.”
"We've been lucky and blessed to have the support of our community and our sheriff that helped us do this," Welch added.
Any Williamson County resident who is interested in learning about how to enroll in Project LifeSaver can contact WCSO at (615)790-5560 and ask for either Deputy Welch or Corporal Burns.
The Sheriff's office also accepts monetary donations to help fun the program in Williamson County, and anyone wishing to make a donation can also contact WCSO directly.
More information about Project LifeSaver can be found here.