Last month, when an autistic child went missing in the Center Grove area, emergency workers already knew where the boy might go from past experiences when he had run from his parents.

But, with a monitoring system the county uses for children and seniors who have a tendency to wander away, emergency workers don’t have to guess where they might have gone and set up a blind search. They can use a monitoring system to find them within minutes, instead of hours.

Throughout the county, five fire departments use a program called Project Lifesaver to monitor adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and children with autism or other conditions who have a tendency to wander.

In total, the agencies are monitoring 23 adults and children, with nearly half being children in the Greenwood and Center Grove areas.

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But they know more families need the monitoring system, and they want to expand the program to be sure they are reaching all communities.

“We are trying to get more now. A lot of people don’t know about the program,” Bargersville Fire Department Lt. Matt Perkins said.

Recently, the five fire departments that participate in the program — New Whiteland, Trafalgar, Franklin, Bargersville and White River Township — began meeting to create a countywide task force that will be called to respond when an adult or child in the program goes missing anywhere in the county.

The goal is to create a standardized response, so that when a call comes in, each department responds the same and every community knows what to expect, Perkins said.

The Project Lifesaver program, which is used across the world, first started locally in Bargersville with one resident, an elderly man with dementia who would often wander from home. Police and firefighters typically knew where the man was going, but at times, he took a different route or headed to a different spot, making him harder to find, Perkins said.

The fire department worked with his family and he was their first client for the Project Lifesaver program. He was fitted with a bracelet with a tracking device, and the fire department got equipment that would allow them to pick up the signal from his device from up to a mile away. Teams of searchers could then use that signal to close in on the man’s location when he wandered away, and return him home safely, Perkins said.

“It’s a big peace of mind for the families,” Perkins said.

The system also is a huge help to emergency workers, who can typically find the person they are searching for within 15 to 30 minutes, White River Township Fire Department Lt. Ryan Cox said.

Without the system, the same search could take hours, he said.

“It takes an overall area and shrinks it down to a more manageable area that we are able to focus our efforts on,” Cox said.

Searchers have a window of time to find someone, before they travel further away. Not wasting any time is critical, New Whiteland Fire Chief Derek Wilson said.

The more time that passes, the harder the search gets and may require search dogs and helicopters. New Whiteland has gotten to that point once before with the local child they have in the program who wanders from home, Wilson said.

“The more time that passes by, you may have to step up your response,” Wilson said.

But while New Whiteland is more residential and commercial, other areas of the county are more rural, with woods and fields and water, and that makes finding someone even harder, he said.

That’s why the Project Lifesaver program is useful, and should be used as much as possible when people qualify with a documented condition, such as Alzheimer’s or autism, Franklin Fire Department Division Chief of Operations Andrew Tames said.

Without it, emergency workers start each search by interviewing relatives and friends about where the senior or child likes to go and then have lots of searchers out looking, he said.

And on days with cold weather, finding someone who has wandered away — often not dressed for the cold — being outside for just 30 minutes can be dangerous, Tames said.

Tames knows the program has saved lives by helping emergency workers find people faster when they go missing, he said.

“Every single one of them is very important,” Tames said.

At a glance

Here is a closer look at the Project Lifesaver program:

Who: 23 residents are in the program, which includes both adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and children with autism or other conditions that wander away

What: Each resident wears a tracking device that is on its own radio signal. Emergency workers are then able to pick up that signal with special equipment and find the missing person.

Cost: Free to residents

To sign up: In order to qualify for the program, a resident must have a documented diagnosis and family that wants to participate, including testing the tracking device daily. Contact Bargersville Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Herron at 317-422-5187 for more information.

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Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.