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New tech helps cops find missing persons with autism, Alzheimer's
By Eric Peterson | Daily Herald Staff

Schaumburg Police Sgt. John Nebl demonstrates the new Care Trak system by trying to find a transmitter hidden outside the police station.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Jill Kelly is grateful Schaumburg took seriously the need to be able to track people with autism, like her son, Jason.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

The transmitter, left, can be worn on the wrist or ankle.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Schaumburg Police Sgt. John Nebl finds the hidden transmitter by the boathouse just east of the police station. The transmitter is as large as a wristwatch.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/29/2009 11:33 AM

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Safely recovering a missing person with autism or Alzheimer's today is usually dependent on either good luck or the kindness of strangers.

But new technology is beginning to help police make it a more methodical process.

Employing the same radio-frequency tracking equipment used to study wildlife behavior, a downstate Illinois company is making the finding of lost special-needs people a quicker and easier task.

Schaumburg police will be the next of only a few Chicago-area departments taking advantage of the innovations of Murphysboro-based Care Trak International.

Three missing-people cases in Schaumburg this year, plus the plea of a mother whose son has a tendency to bolt, prompted the village to acquire the equipment through grants and private donations, Sgt. John Nebl said.

The average time it takes the devices to find a missing person is 30 minutes, Nebl said.

Though the tracking equipment has only a 1-mile range, the people it's intended to track are very rarely farther away than that before their caregivers know they're gone.

And by looping out from the missing person's home, two squad cars can usually quickly pick up a signal from the transmitter worn on either a wrist or ankle.

Nebl recently demonstrated the tracker by finding a transmitter that had been hidden near the grounds of the Schaumburg police station.

Receiving both audio and visual prompts from the tracker, Nebl used a system of trial and error to zero in on the transmitter's signal, finding it within minutes taped to a traffic cone at the Volkening Lake boathouse.

For its intended purpose, the equipment is better than GPS technology which becomes useless if the missing person is under a bridge or anywhere else out of satellite range, Nebl said.

Though the wrist or ankle transmitters are designed not to come off easily, Care Trak Vice President Mike Chylewski cautioned against their general use as protection against kidnappings.

"The system can be defeated by someone who has their full faculties," he said.

Schaumburg police will begin using the system in January, after Nebl has trained six to eight officers per shift to use it. There are already requests from four potential families.

Nebl said candidates will be given the wristbands first to make sure the autistic child or Alzheimer's patient can comfortably wear it before the family is charged for the $250 transmitter.

Because some autistic children have sensory sensitivities, not all are able to wear the wrist or ankle bands.

In fact, one child in Huntley whose mother lobbied strongly for the equipment turned out to not be able to wear it, said Crystal Lake Police Officer Sean McGrath.

Crystal Lake, Huntley and the McHenry County Sheriff's Department jointly received a donation of the equipment from Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital last spring. One Crystal Lake child is currently wearing the device, McGrath said.

Huntley police are currently promoting the transmitters for use among Alzheimer's patients in the Sun City retirement community, he added.

Naperville has been using the equipment the longest in the Chicago area, nearly four years, said the city's Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator Marita Manning.

"It's been extremely effective," Manning said. "It's a great program, though not a well advertised program."

She hopes more departments will see the transmitters as a cost-saving investment allowing them to shorten searches of hours, days or weeks to about 30 minutes.

In the last four years, Naperville has used the devices to successfully track down three missing elderly people and one child. The longest of these searches took 35 minutes while the shortest was only 7 minutes.

Schaumburg resident Jill Kelly said she learned of the devices' success in Naperville after her own autistic son, Jason, developed a habit of running away from home looking for buttons to press on video and stereo equipment in other people's homes.

She approached Schaumburg Police Chief Brian Howerton last spring and was pleasantly surprised by how seriously he took her and how quickly he made the technology a priority.

"My philosophy is, it doesn't hurt to ask," Kelly said. "I just want Jason safe in his bed every night, and if this is just a safety net and we never use it, that's just great. But if we do need it, and we find him faster, that's fantastic."